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In Your Face!

Let's talk balls.

  1. Reclamation, Upset

    "It was over, we are champions, that is all I could think of," said an ecstatic Chibueze Ikeh, the 6-8 center, in the aftermath of the Ateneo De Manila's thriller of a title clincher against arch rival De La Salle 88-86. This is Ikeh's final playing year. He is graduating in a few months.

    After three of the most grueling and emotionally-wrenching games in UAAP Finals history, the Blue Eagles reclaimed a championship they once owned for five straight seasons.

    "I just lay on the floor of the Araneta (Coliseum)," said point guard Matt Nieto after that last heave from La Salle went in. "I knew it was all over and we were champions," he added happily.

    Indeed, this had to be the toughest, and to use that millennial term, epic title series in maybe the last 15 years.

    Last year, the Green Archers were the veteran-laden team bringing in Benoit Mbala, arguably the best player ever to see action in the country's most popular varsity league. Somehow the Blue Eagles managed to get into the Season 79 Finals to square off against La Salle, and expectedly, the Ateneo bowed in a two-game sweep.

    Fast forward to winner-take-all Sunday just a year later, and suddenly the Ateneo looked nothing like the easy pickings they were just a year prior. "We learned there is no substitute for working the hardest you can," remarked Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin, the American-New Zealand mentor who preached "playing the right way" right from the get-go.

    Game 1 had its fair share of controversy, as videos from that game continue to make the rounds in social media showing at least four instances where La Salle players were taking cheap shots at their Ateneo counterparts, including at least three instances of closed fist strikes from the La Salle side that should have merited at least a one-game suspension on the errant players. The Ateneo still pulled off the 76-70 victory in this game, with center George Go completing the and-1 clincher.

    Game 2 saw the Blue Eagles go up by as much as 21 points, only to have the Green Archers turn that around and build up as much as a 13-point lead themselves, as they knotted the series at one game apiece with the 92-83 victory.

    Game 3, well, was a classic.

    The Ateneo was up 10 early on, but La Salle stormed right back in the third period, taking a 59-62 lead on a one-hander by forward Abu Tratter.

    But the Ateneo kept its composure and got an 80-70 spread midway through the payoff fourth period.

    La Salle would come to within 82-80 on a three-pointer, with over a minute left.

    Go however would reprise his hero's role, taking the perfect kick-out pass from a driving Thirdy Ravena to nail a clutch three-pointer from his favorite quarter-court spot to give the Ateneo the 85-80 breathing space it needed.

    "The whole team is clutch. I would not have made that shot if it wasn't for the coaches who design our plays, my teammates who were all in their proper spots," said the 6-7 Go, an Applied Chemistry Major now in his senior year in college.

    Nieto and Anton Asistio would nail the insurance free throws to negate the buzzer beating three-pointer from La Salle for the final count.

    This is the Ateneo's ninth senior division basketball diadem, and without a doubt the one they had to work for the hardest.

    Their 1987 and 1988 back-to-back titles, where Nieto's father Jet played, was a tall, tough, talented team.

    Enrico Villanueva, LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Rich Alvarez, and Wesley Gonzales all went on to have very good pro careers, with a couple of them even seeing National Team duty, after they won the 2002 championship.

    Forget the 2008 to 2012 5-Peat dynasty under Norman Black. Those teams were so ridiculously loaded it would have been a crime for them to lose. Yes, even the 2010 team in between the Rabeh Al Hussaini-Nonoy Baclao and Greg Slaughter years.

    This championship was probably the only one among the nine when the Ateneo was the clear underdog in terms of sheer talent.

    I mean, come on, Benoit Mbala was playing for La Salle, and he had swingman Ricci Rivero, point guard sniper Aljun Melecio, 6-5 slam dunk champion power forward Leonard Santillan, and Tratter.

    "Sa totoo lang kung kunwari jak en poy tayo, tapos pipili ka ng players mo, sino ba mas pipiliin mo? Hindi ba talaga namang mas may talent and players ng La Salle lalo na si Mbala," queried Mr Libog over lunch before Game 3.

    "We need to get hot from three-point range, and hope for some foul trouble on Mbala at least, para may laban tayo," he added.

    Mr Libog got his wish.

    Baldwin did a heck of a job accentuating the strengths of the Blue Eagles while doing his best to minimize their negatives, not the least ...
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  2. What A Difference A Year or Two (or Three) Makes, Part 2

    (Continued from the previous)

    "May mga cases kasi talaga na ang galing-galing nung high school player pero it turns out he's just older than the kids he plays against, at nabibisto din naman siya pagdating pa lang niya ng Seniors," Mr Libog exclaimed.

    I then recalled that a coach from a well-known high school basketball program actually admitted to me something that has long been making the rounds in local high school basketball: Yes, he admitted, when a recruit comes to their program, and that recruit is either just the right age or a little younger for his curriculum year, they make him repeat a curriculum year and max out his age eligibility for junior division play.

    He went on to explain that this wasn't done willy-nilly, that there were practical reasons for doing so: First, their program wanted to maximize the recruit's available playing years, especially if he is a transfer who has to sit out a year to establish residency anyway. Let's say a recruit already finished Grade 8 in his previous school, and he was only say 13 years old, or a little young for a Grade 8 student. When he goes to their program, they talk the recruit into repeating Grade 8, and make that repeat year his residency year. That way they will still have the recruit for four playing years, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. By the time he is in his last year of junior ball he will already be 18, in this given case. There were even times they made recruits repeat two years if they were really young.

    Second, they recognized early on that a player who is older than average in junior ball can more easily take on younger players, even if those younger players are objectively more athletic and more talented than he is. Forget about the difference between a 17-year old and an 18-year old; imagine instead the difference between a 15-year old and a 17-year old. Only in the rarest of cases can a younger player whip an older player at the high school level.

    Third, there is of course that adjustment period needed for a player to get used to more organized, more regimented basketball, especially if he came from an unstructured or barely structured background, like say if he came from the countryside and there really wasn't a regular varsity tournament where he comes from. It'll take at least a year even for the most talented and smartest high school player to get used to a more rigorous system than the one he was used to.

    The bottom line, the coach therefore emphasized, is that it makes sense to use older players in high school basketball, just so long as you do not break the rules. If the rules of your tournament allow you to play high school ball up to age 19, then the perfect team, as far as this coach goes, is one where all of the players are 19, or at least half of them are 19 and the other half are 17 to 18. Pit them even against a team of sky walking, slam dunking, running and gunning younger players, and he will put even money on his older team every time.

    "Diyan na lumalabas nga 'yung big question: Kapag nakakaita ka ng player sa Juniors na obvious naman sa itsura pa lang na mas matanda kesa sa mga kalaban niya, at nilalamon niya mga kalaban niya, hindi ba dapat lang naman ganun ang mangyari? So maybe what we are looking at is not an elite player who will be a sure PBA star in the future. Maybe what we are really looking at is nothing more than an older kid beating the shit out of younger kids, in a manner of speaking of course," expounded Mr Libog.

    "Bigyan kita ng example. You remember when we went to watch Rey Nambatac mga six or seven years ago sa Buddha Care? Sino 'yung nakaagaw sa pansin natin? Kilala mo 'yon," he inquired.

    It took me a few seconds. "Si (Koko) Pingoy?" I asked-answered.

    "Correct. Si Nambatac ang pinuntahan natin, pero nakaagaw ng pansin natin si Pingoy. Guess who's older sa kanilang dalawa?" he asked.

    "Si Pingoy?" I asked-answered again.

    "Si Nambatac, by about a year. Pareho silang born 1994, pero Nambatac was January, Pingoy was December, pero parehong 1994," he said.

    "So magkaedad lang pala sila technically speaking, mas matanda pa nga si Rey," I said.

    "Correct. Coincidence kaya na silang dalawa 'yung pinakamagaling sa respective teams nila at that time? At that time they were both around 18, or sa case ni Pingoy pushing 18 na din siya," he said.

    "So nung nag-champion ang Letran under Ayo, legit 21 na si Rey. Nung time naman na nag-champion sa Fr Martin ang Team B ng Ateneo, 'yung first championship nila dun sa Trinity, turning 20 na din si Pingoy, and take note may mga imports siya that time," he added.

    I pointed out that Joma Adornado was on that title team too, as was Mikey Cabahug and a then under-residency Ponso Gotladera.

    "Yes they were. And how old were all of those ...
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  3. NU Freego Cup Champ

    National University High School hung tough in an ugly game to annex the Pilipno-Chinese Amateur Basketball League Freego Cup championship versus a hardfighting Lasalle Zobel 58-52.

    Zobel had a fiery start, soing up as much as 21-12 late in the first period behind the eight quarter points of 5'7" superstar guard Aljun Melecio. Melecio got plenty of help from the hustle of chunky 6-foot center Robbie Mariano and 5'9" swingman Brent Paraiso.

    Melecio, Paraiso, and 5'7" guard Marvin Sario made a living off playing the passing lanes and intercepting plays from the NU guards. 5'7" Keith Peralta and 5'7" Daniel Atienza just could not get the ball to their big men down low with the pesky defense of Zobel.

    NU however was able to regain its bearings to turn things around in the second period behind the combined efforts of tournament Mythical 5 member, 6'1" forward John Clemente, and 6-foot backup forward Carl Penano. Clemente and Penano were able to assert their superior size and strength against the overmatched Zobel frontline players especially with Clemente taking it hard to the rack in transition.

    NU took a 32-26 lead going into the lemon time break.

    Second half action proved to be a battle of futility, with both sides finding it hard to make a basket, not so much because of tightened defenses but simply because of errant passing and seemingly sure shots rolling off the rim.

    Melecio at this point had been all but silenced, with the much bigger Clemente shadowing him, and RP Youth Team member, 6'2" forward Rhayyan Amsali helping jam him at the perimeter, preventing him from taking his three-point shots.

    NU however wasn't faring much better at the basket, as their guards just could not get anything going. Clemente had also become frustrated with turnovers piling up and was unable to sustain any scoring momentum he built during the first half.

    Zobel put together a mini-run towards the end of the third period behind 5'10" forward Martin Romero and 5'6" guard Miguel Fortuna to give Zobel back the edge at 41-42.

    In the payoff fourth period the war of attrition continued. It looked like the game would go into extension. But NU somehow found enough of a finishing kick to build a seven point lead 49-42 going into the last three minutes.

    Another stretch of bungled passes and missed baskets ensued until Melecio suddenly nailed a three-pointer to bring Zobel within 52-50.

    Amsali and Penano however hit a couple of insurance points to keep the Junior Archers at bay. Peralta almost gave Zobel a chance to go for overtime with a dribbling error right in front of his coach, Jeff Napa, earning him a tongue lashing. NU held on for the title win though.

    Penano had 10 points for NU while Melecio had 18 for Zobel. Melecio was a woeful 4/14 from three-point range.

    In the game for third place Mapua titally shredded reigning UAAP champion Ateneo 104-79 behind the 30 points of 6'1" Mythical 5 member Sherwin Concepcion.
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