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  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. Grey Matters

    We used to call them zebras, because they used to wear shirts with bold black stripes.

    Now however it seems there is an explosion of colors in referee fashion. In some games they wear a bright yellow, reminiscent of emergency signals.

    In some tournaments they wear orange, like life savers and lifeguards sometime do.

    For the most part however, the modern basketball referee wears grey. Even in the ongoing UAAP Season 80 basketball tournament, it has been their uniform color of choice.

    For those of you who've watched the post-season of Season 80 you already know where this is going.

    It all began with the Final 4 match between reigning champion De La Salle and Adamson. That was a game won handily by the Green Archers 82-75, coming back from as many as 15 points.

    And that is where things start to get interesting.

    Franz Pumaren, head coach of the Soaring Falcons and a UAAP veteran, called it "the worst officiating" he had ever experienced in a few interviews after that game.

    Considering there was a free throw disparity of 39-5 in favor of La Salle, it seems Pumaren wasn't merely going all sour grapes or whining. Let me repeat that: 39-5.

    Now La Salle is a strong team, the reigning champion, and the consensus Number 1 seed going into this year's tournament. Surely they - of all teams - wouldn't need any help from the referees just to win a game. Right?

    That sort of misses the point. The actual point is that glaring disparity in free throws. It was so glaring that even people who had nothing to do with either side took notice and had opinions about it.

    "For the first time in three years, it was a first that aside from the losing team which you expect the complaint from, there are some sectors who checked what happened. So of course, I cannot be insensitive to the public cause at the end of the day, they are the audience. We have to address the outcry," said Commissioner and Executive Director Rebo Saguisag.

    Saguisag, a lawyer, and son of former Senator Rene Saguisag, also suspended all three referees who worked this game. At least two of these referees were already singled out in previous controversies. That they were even calling a critical playoff game is beyond me.

    Hardly had the sound and fury of this game died down when suddenly Game 1 of the Finals rolled around, and was done.

    Both the league and ABS CBN had its dream match, with the Ateneo De Manila disposing of Far Eastern in their knockout Final 4 game in overtime to set up the title series with La Salle.

    Leaning on the clutch baskets of center George Go in the last few seconds, the Blue Eagles went on to take Game 1 76-70.

    Once again however, the referees were in the thick of the conversation.

    Videos circulating all over the Internet, especially social media, showed at least four specific instances when La Salle players had committed clear violations while the referees inexplicably did not blow their whistles.

    1. Ricci Rivero low-blowed Vince Tolentino after Tolentino had taken a free throw, with a closed fist.

    2. Benoit Mbala hit a driving Thirdy Ravena in the face, with a closed fist. This time with Referee Number 59 right there at the baseline with a clear view of this bit of action.

    3. Abu Tratter punched Raffy Verano in the side as Verano hit the deck to try and go after a loose ball.

    4. Benoit Mbala, on a cut, snapped an elbow into Tolentino's chin as the latter went to cover the former.

    5. Prince Rivero also had a closed fist throughout his attempts to get rebounds and box out.

    It is one thing to try to get an advantage through tough / clever play, "kung ayaw mo masaktan, mag-chess ka na lang," as my good friend Wang-bu always says.

    It is however quite another thing for an entire team to make it part and parcel of strategy and tactics to go out and deliberately hurt the opponents.

    This might be an opportune time to remind the league that closed fists are such a huge no-no in this game that just brandishing them (such in a "fighting stance" as the FIBA rules say) could get a guy tossed from a game and even suspended.

    "I'll do whatever it takes to win. But I won't go out there and deliberately injure a fellow player," explained former UP star Jett Manuel in one interview.

    You'd think after the Ateneo had been given 29 free throws in the first half of this game that La Salle would tone it down, but no, the Green Archers just kept going.

    "I've never in 35 years had a consultation with a referee at halftime. I thought it was reduntant. They were just saying what is obviously happening and what will obviously continue to happen," said Tab Baldwin, ...
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  3. Ateneo-Lasalle Finals Looms (Season 80 Edition)

    And just like that the flagship UAAP Season 80 men's basketball senior division tournament is about to come to a close.

    After 112 elimination games spread over two rounds, it looks like the consensus Top 2 teams really are going to have rematch in the Finals.

    ABS CBN and the League itself could not have planned it much better.

    Reigning champion De La Salle is just waiting for arch rival Ateneo De Manila to dispose of stubborn Far Eastern as of this writing, and the two best teams of the tournament will have another blockbuster showdown to cap off the 80th season of the most popular collegiate caging tournament in the country.

    Ateneo could have been first into the Finals, except that La Salle beat them in the last game of the eliminations 79-76, preventing a regular season sweep by the Blue Eagles and the automatic Finals berth that went with it. It was a reversal of sorts, as the Ateneo had prevented La Salle from sweeping last season on the last game day as well.

    La Salle already booked their return trip to the Big Dance with a controversial 82-75 decision over third-seed Adamson University. The Green Archers came back from as much as 15 points down to pull the rug out from under the Soaring Falcons in their Final 4 match.

    This game however came with quite a lot of baggage, and has (as of this writing) become subject of an official protest from Adamson. The heart of the matter: La Salle was awarded 39 free throws while Adamson only got five. Yes sir, that is no typo, the free throw difference was 39-5 in favor of the Green Archers.

    The League responded to the Adamson protest by immediately suspending the three referees that worked this game, "with two strongly recommended for being banned for the rest of the season," in their response to Adamson. "If only to preserve public confidence in our league," the response further stated.

    Adamson head coach Franz Pumaren repeatedly said this was the "worst officiating" he had ever seen, and it seems the free throw statistics support him, Ironically, Pumaren was once head coach of La Salle and even led the team to a 4-Peat from 1998 to 2001.

    What other steps the league will take on this matter however remains to be seen. It is very rare that a re-play of a crucial playoff game is held, for whatever reason. In my rusty memory banks I think the last tiem a crucial game was re-played was between FEU and National University, during the heyday of the Terrence Romeo-Ray Parks shootouts, and the details now elude me. Perhaps someone can clarify the details (or even my memory of this) in the comments section.

    A similar controversy erupted sometime in 2014, during the Round 1 Ateneo-UE game, when the Ateneo got a 40-24 advantage in free throws - with league darling Kiefer Ravena getting 25 free throws just for himself - and the Blue Eagles going on to overhaul a big UE lead to win that game in overtime. Ravena had a career 38 points in that game.

    The Ateneo for its part succumbed to the Tamaraws last November 19th 80-67. FEU led by as many as 18 at one point, led by veteran Ron Dennison and former Blue Eagles, forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani.

    "We haven't done anything yet. We just took away their twice-to-beat advantage," said FEU head coach Olsen Racela, himself a former Blue Eagle and part of the 1988 Ateneo title team.

    Their knockout Final 4 game is set for tomorrow, November 22.

    This is another deja vu situation, as the Tamaraws and Blue Eagles also went the distance in last season's Final 4, with the Ateneo eventually making it to the Big Dance.

    FEU held the Ateneo to a little over 36% shooting from the field, including a nightmarish 3/17 from three-point range in the second half. "We just shot abysmally, and I can't even tell you how or why," said Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin after the game.

    FEU for its part shot nearly 50% from the field and even got the lucky ones, like a 28-foot buzzer beater by Cani in the third period.

    As the Season 80 Host School, Racela and the rest of the Tamaraws are hoping to make a different outcome in the KO match tomorrow.

    Still, no one is betting against a rematch between the Blues and Greens.

    Because seriously, can there be a bigger blockbuster in present day Philippine basketball than friggin' Ateneo-La Salle?

    Who will take the title?

    Smart money says the Green Archers get their back-to-back championship.
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  4. Expectations III

    Expectations: NU is yet another team struggling with huge talent losses over the last couple of seasons. It doesn't help that sophomore forward Josh Sinclair got injured, and that prize recruit JV Gallego is still on their B Team for unspecified reasons.

    That leaves the main burden of carrying to team to veteran guard Rodolfo "JJ" Alejandro Jr, and he has done all he can to keep NU's boat afloat in Season 80. He's gotten some help from forward Matt Salem, the stretch 4 who transferred from La Salle, 6-8 import Issa Gaye and 6-7 center Matthew Aquino, son of PBA legend Marlou.

    But there just isn't enough talent across the board to make a contender of the Bulldogs, who are only three years removed from their last UAAP Championship, a title that was 60 years in the making. Alejandro and Gaye are among the league's MVP contenders, but they've gotten erratic support from the rest of their guys.

    "It is all about consistency, and right now we have a lot of work to do on that," said head coach Jamike Jarin in one interview after their Round 1 loss to league-leading Ateneo. Jarin is trying to play his usual frenetic style with the Bulldogs, but it seems this isn't quite working out at the Senior Division as well as it did in the Junior Division, a knock on him that carried over from his two seasons over in the NCAA as the head coach of the San Beda Red Lions.

    NU needs to try and put some kind of win streak together, but that may be easier said than done considering everything going against them, from their relative youth to their lack of overall talent.

    Surprise: Enzo Joson has emerged as a pleasant enough surprise for Jarin and NU, as the former Ateneo Blue Eaglet has had some nifty games for the Bulldogs. Not bad for a kid who used to play behind the likes of the Nieto Twins and Jolo Mendoza back in high school.

    Expectations: UE was tagged as the early contender for the basement of Season 80, and were it not for a late round win over UP, they may very well be in said basement right now.

    UE is the only UAAP team without an import, and it is supposedly a management direction, although the more veteran basketball observers have lain this squarely at the feet of head coach Derek Pumaren. UE did after all have an import when Pumaren arrived three years ago, 6-8 Bertrand Awana. Awana had already played in the offseason tournaments and was then eligible already to see action in the UAAP. Pumaren however decided to remove him from the program completely for reasons not quite fully explained.

    Since then the Warriors have gone All Filipino, not a bad thing per se, as La Salle and the Ateneo had done the same with some success in the earlier parts of this decade. But the huge difference was that both the Blue Eagles and the Green Archers of that time had truly superior local talent. UE right now has nowhere near that level of talent.

    In fact the only Warrior worth a mention right now is burly 6-2 forward Alvin Pasaol, a recruit from Cebu who was already showing glimpses of his star game last season. Pasaol unloaded 49 points, the second highest individual scoring output in UAAP history, in a tough loss against reigning champion La Salle. He followed that up with 32 points in that win over State.

    Sure, they have some other pieces, like Philip Manalang, Mark Olayon, Nick Abanto, Clark Derige, Jason Varilla, but seriously, outside of Pasaol there isn't one elite player among them, and even Pasaol isn't exactly in the same league as say former Warrior Kings James Yap or Paul Lee.

    Surprise: Alvin Pasaol can ball, and teams need to make sure he doesn't out up new career numbers on them.

    Expectations: How the heck can UST, with the talent on their roster, possibly be winless as of this writing. They are now 0-8 by the way, so they started out Round 2 the way they did Round 1, losing to State, this time by two points.

    Marvin Lee, Oliver De Guzman, JC Escalambre, Jordan Sta Ana, Reggie Basibas, Chris Garcia, Justin Arana, Jeepy Faundo, and 6-8 center Steven Akomo possibly go winless after eight friggin' games in a field this weak?

    Seriously, how many teams have locals with the quality size of Faundo and Arana, plus they have Akomo who is currently an MVP contender.

    At around the midpoint of the first round there were actually four (!) Growling Tigers among the Top 11 MVP contenders in the league. That was no typo: 4 out of the Top 11 MVP contenders came out of UST at some point in the first round of the eliminations. How then can anybody say they lack talent?

    Could the fault then all lie with head coach Boy Sablan? "Alam mo naman ako, I don't agree with your mentality about the coach being that important, tingin ko minimal impact ng coach sa team, pero sa kaso ng UST baka may punto ka," quipped Mr ...
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  5. Expectations II

    Expectations: There were already some rumblings in the offseason that the FEU Tamaraws would not be among the top contenders in Season 80, simply because they lost too much talent and no replacements came in.

    It was tough enough that the only legitimate superstar they had last season was hardworking forward Raymar "Toto" Jose, and to some extent guard Monbert Arong. They didn't even find replacements for those guys.

    Sure, two former Ateneo stalwarts had transferred and were now eligible to see action in Season 80: forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani, both of whom were high priority recruits coming out of the Junior Division. But after their so-so performances as Blue Eagles, at best a lot of the keener observers were saying this would probably amount to a "start from scratch" or "new beginning" for these two.

    They are also still trying to find their identity as a team with a rookie head coach in Olsen Racela. Some newcomers like RJ Ramirez had a great summer tournament but have not found much traction yet this season. Import Prince Orizu us still a handful in the lane but isn't really someone you can get the ball to and expect to produce at will.

    Surprise: That old saying about a good team always being good does not apply this season to FEU. There just isn't enough talent here to be considered a serious contender, for all the good they showed in the offseason.

    FEU always used to have very good forwards who made up solid front lines - Jose was the latest PBA D League MVP and now a Gilas Cadets mainstay and prospective Top 5 pick in the upcoming PBA Draft - but now it seems that era is over.

    Expectations: UP had arguably the biggest win this season when they upset reigning champion La Salle behind the 30-point explosion of veteran guard Paul Desiderio.

    Desiderio and UP started off their season with a heck of a finish versus UST, with Desiderio (again) providing the game-winning three-pointer, which he called in their last timeout.

    But their overall lack of proven star talent is showing. They put in 16 three-pointers, tying the UAAP record, when they beat La Salle. How often does that happen for any team? Certainly not often enough that you can count on it everytime.

    True enough the Fighting Maroons are a game under .500 with Desiderio and to some extent rookie transfer Jun Manzo doing most of the carrying.

    Surprise: That upset victory over La Salle ought to make their season already.
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