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In Your Face!

Reclamation, Upset

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"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 of which is a deficit in terms of raw talent.

"Talent will always win, well maybe nine out of ten times, haha," cackled Mr Libog after downing another perfectly done shrimp tempura.

Meanwhile, that same night after Game 3, La Salle lit up its main building in their campus in Taft Ave in Ateneo blue in a classy gesture of sportsmanship and tribute.

"Heck of a PR coup," I remarked to a senior alumni.

"Not bad though, and very classy," he replied.

Much like this title series.

Those who wish to join in the celebration may want to go to the Bonfire on Saturday, December the 9th, over at the Ateneo campus grounds.

"We'll get ourselves nice and drunk," said an old classmate, as if we needed an excuse of that scale to imbibe.

"Bring something nice for the Bonfire," he called out as I left the Big Dome.

I certainly will: my camera.


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