The Living Daylights - UAAP Game 2 Ateneo 79 vs. UP 55
Round One UAAP Season 70
by Rick Olivares
July 12, 2007
Ninoy Aquino Stadium
It was that kind of afternoon. In spite of the air-conditioned atmosphere of a white-hot basketball rivalry, Joe Lipa looked up to the rafters of the Ninoy Aquino Stadium and wiped his sweating brow. The game was a blur. He was oblivious to the cheers of the Blue Babble Battalion behind the UP bench.
His young Maroons scored 19 first quarter points and another 13 to end the half. It wouldn’t sound so bad except that they trailed 44-31 to an inspired Ateneo team after 20 minutes of action and were looking at the makings of another blowout. They had barely gotten over the opening day shellacking they got from a pumped up De La Salle squad then they were up against Ateneo which has swept them in the past two seasons. To make matters even more complicated, he was going into this match two men down as Martin Reyes was nursing a fever and Magi Sison hobbled by an injury. Even worse, he didn’t have anyone down the blocks to stop Ateneo’s new go-to player… Claiford Arao.
Lipa railed at his boys at halftime for their inability to execute and take care of the ball. Ateneo may have a taller line-up, but if their shot selection were better they’d be in the fight. The long-time UP coach hoped that a couple of long bombs would not only open up the game but also give his team some badly needed confidence. Chris Tiu was struggling with his shot but that wasn’t because of his guards’ defense. The Blue Eagles’ co-captain simply wasn’t draining them. But to the league’s surprise, Ateneo had found a wellspring of points inside the shaded lane with the three-headed monster of Arao, Jobe Nkemakolam, and Rabah Al-Husseini. Something not seen since Enrico Villanueva and Rich Alvarez patrolled the shaded lane for Ateneo.
The UP cheerleaders and dancers were putting the finishing touches on their halftime routine as Lipa stayed in the tunnel leading to the dugout. He issued last minute instructions to his captain Veejay Serios to be aggressive inside and to take the fight to Ateneo’s big men. The Maroons were taking a beating off the boards. They had to pull abreast now or the game was over.
At the 4:34 mark of the third quarter, the Blue Eagles’ Nkemakolam hit a one-handed jump shot; a 12-5 blitz that hiked the lead to 56-36. Lipa shook his head and was unable to mask the pain in his face.
The living daylights
Unlike in their season opener last Sunday July 8, where the Blue Eagles took to the floor joking and smiling, they were all business-like this time around. They started out flat against Adamson and after spotting the Falcons a sizeable lead; they nearly fell apart in the fourth quarter. They arrested their late game skid care of an and-one by Al-Husseini and a pair of free throws by Chris Tiu before handing over the scoring chores to Ford Arao’s sudden magic touch in overtime.
With Nonoy Baclao once more in foul trouble this time against the Maroons, Arao checked into the game with five minutes left in the first quarter to a huge ovation. The fifth year frontcourt man immediately went to work and scored six straight points to erase an early 14-15 deficit. The Blue Eagles would trail no more after Arao’s follow up bucket off a missed shot.
Since Arao joined the Blue Eagles in 2003, he’s always had to play second or even third fiddle to Paolo Bugia, Japeth Aguilar, Doug Kramer, and Rabah Al-Husseini. During his high school days in San Beda, he was the man in the middle who led the Red Cubs to a juniors crown over the Letran Squires. Several schools recruited him, but he chose to go to Loyola Heights that had somewhat become a favored destination among migrating Cubs.
The college game with its bigger and faster pace was a difficult transition for Arao. He found himself fumbling and bumbling plays to calls for his benching by rabid alumni. He persevered and under Norman Black, he has flourished and displayed a newfound confidence and intensity. Gone are the days when he’d flash his goofy grin and battle Doug Kramer for the Butterfingers Award. Over the last two years, Arao has slimmed down and reduced his body fat while adding some muscle to better manage the mosh pit of collegiate hoops. Not only did he win the UAAP Player of the Week citation last week, but incredibly, he’s leading the team in scoring and rebounding with a 19 points and 12 rebounds average.
After three quarters and Chris Tiu still misfiring, Arao who had 16 markers at that point (he would also finish with nine rebounds), turned over the scoring chores to Rabah Al-Husseini who dumped 13 points in the final period – one point less than the entire UP squad. While Rabah and Ford top-scored for the team (21 and 16 points respectively), the game also saw the UAAP debut of Bacon Austria (five points and four caroms), Kirk Long (two assists), and Chris Sumalinog (one rebound) who all found a way to contribute to the team’s second straight victory. But after the game, Arao apologized to Assistant Coach Sandy Arespacochaga for his five turnovers. The game had been over for about five minutes now and he still had his game face on.
After the funeral dirge that passed off for the alma mater, one alumnus serenaded Arao: “Ford for MVP!” The Blue Eagles big man suddenly thrust in the spotlight and adulation of the Ateneo gallery offered that sheepish and goofy smile of his.
The five strides to halfcourt from the UP Maroons team bench to shake Norman Black’s hand after the game was difficult. Joe Lipa’s young team had taken another beating. Almost all game long they were unable to mount a consistent attack. Were it not for Ateneo’s 20 turnovers – many of them unforced – the final margin might have been higher.
As his team walked off towards the dugout, he put his hand on his gunner Martin Reyes’ shoulder. “Coach,” asked Reyes.
“Growing pains lang ‘yan,” answered the coach who looked up one last time at the scoreboard. “I need a cigarette.”
Doug Kramer watched his former teammates battle for their second consecutive win. As much as he looks forward to a career in the pros, Kramer terribly misses the college game and wearing blue and white. But he’s happy; he had a good seat in the house to watch Arao’s maturation and breakout year. After the game, Arao sought him out in the stands and they shook hands. The baton has been passed.
At the far end of patron section, De La Salle coach Franz Pumaren and the rest of his staff scouted the Blue Eagles. The Green Archers had practice after the game and all of them watched and compared notes. Said Pumaren after the stadium began to empty out, “We’ll have to devise something to stop Ateneo’s bigs (referring to the Blues’ frontcourt players). And when we meet, it will be jam-packed. That’s all I can say.”
Friday, July 13, 2007