Titanic - UAAP Game 5 Ateneo 80 vs DLSU 77
Round One UAAP Season 70
by Rick Olivares
July 26, 2007
The teardrop explodes
PJ Walsham had been talking all game long. In Ateneo’s first possession of the game, he blocked a tentative undergoal stab by Jobe Nkemakolam. Walsham hurled a few choice words the Blue Eagle forward’s way while wagging his finger; an infuriating form of trash talking co-opted from NBA great Dikembe Mutombo.
After another Blue Eagle miss that the fifth year La Sallian center corralled, he was ready to be booked for his own talk show.
But with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the diminutive Jai Reyes floated a teardrop over Walsham, his third such shot over the hulking La Salle center to pad Ateneo’s lead to nine 53-44. Reyes flashed a wide grin. Why trash talk when you could kill them with a smile and an almost unblockable shot?
The rivalry is of mythical proportions. Much has been written and said about Ateneo versus La Salle over the years. Or vice versa. How you can throw the stats out of the window when they play. How traffic is at a standstill. How you can virtually launch a coup since government leaders and the captains of the industry can be found under the roof of the Araneta Coliseum whose owners and heirs are also split down the lines of blue and green.
It’s David (Ateneo) versus Goliath (La Salle). The pre-game odds may have been of biblical reference, but it’s kin to mythology nevertheless.
The Green Machine was derailed last week by the title-hungry UE Red Warriors. So to get them in the mood for fried chickens – as La Sallians once taunted the Ateneans of yesteryear – they went film viewing.
They watched Frank Miller’s 300 to get themselves in a righteous mood – no mercy. They were the gallant Spartans while we were the… Persians?
If they did watch the movie, they would have known that Leonidas’ gallant 300 fell at Thermopylae. Although it was a loss, it led to the Greeks’ ultimate victories at Salamis and Plataea. And the name Ateneo is derived from the Greek goddess Athena.
Whatever. The Blue Eagles on the other hand weren’t overly concerned with such tactics or Walsham’s histrionics. It’s basketball plain and simple. And all they wanted was a win to move up to solo second place. They practiced on beating the press and made adjustments so they wouldn’t be beaten off the boards once more.
Slaying the beast
Heading into this game, people wondered how the Blue Eagles would handle La Salle’s press and if they could stand up to the physical game that the Green Archers love to play. “It’s mental,” dryly said Franz Pumaren.
In case no one from the green side has been taking notes; these are the new jack Blue Eagles who pride themselves with their being mentally tough. If people think that last year’s showing by Ateneo is a fluke… check the stats. They've been winning close games, overtime matches (we’re now 2-0 in extra time), and blowouts. Even the one loss to UE was clearly winnable.
So even when the Green Archers’ jumping jack forward Rico Maierhofer was trying to goad Ford Arao into a fight, the Blue Eagles just pushed Arao out of the way. After Maierhofer made good on his freebies to bring La Salle closer at 71-69 Ateneo, Arao returned the favor by scoring on Walsham for a deuce and adding one free throw the next trip down the floor.
As it is with every meeting between the two, the basic strategem for Ateneo is to handle the pressure. The first few minutes of the game are crucial. If you prevent the Green Archers from going on a scoring spree and if you break their dreaded press, then it’s all going to boil down to a battle of nerves.
But first of all, Ateneo had to beat the press.
There were a few unnerving moments in the first quarter that saw La Salle feeding of miscues that fuel their fastbreak. But Ateneo stayed within reach and were down only by four 19-15 after 10 minutes of hostilities.
In the second quarter, Ateneo’s bench mob of Nonoy Baclao, Ford Arao, and Eman Monfort scored eight straight points to vault the Blues to a 22-19 lead. While the Blue Eagles lost the track meet (the Greenies had 18 fastbreak points to our measly 2), they certainly asserted their might on the boards. But Cholo Villanueva doused the fire as he played the passing lanes and scored 7 points to keep the score tied at 30-all (the game’s fifth deadlock at that point).
Visions of “5”
In 1987, Gilbert “Jun” Reyes, then a junior and wearing jersey #5, led Ateneo to its first UAAP title as he copped league MVP honors with his superb quarterbacking and deadly shooting. He would repeat the feat the following year this time at the expense of the Green Archers. Interestingly, there were two Pumarens on the La Salle sidelines in 1987, Derek, who was the coach, and their star point guard Dindo, now the coach of UE.
And now the nephew who inherited the #5 is coming into his own. Like his uncle, he won too a juniors title. And in the seniors division, he has greatly improved his quarterbacking as well as his shooting to become an integral part of Ateneo coach Norman Black’s rotation. And if a Reyes is to lead the blue and white to the Promised Land of UAAP basketball glory, there’s another Pumaren on the DLSU bench he has to run the gauntlet through… Franz who steered the green and white to four straight titles and brought La Salle to greater heights.
With the first meeting in two years between the two teams on the stage that really matters, Reyes wasn’t about to disappoint. He scored a team high 18 points and dished for 6 assists during an incandescent second half before turning it over to the team’s senior marksman in Chris Tiu and its rookie guard out of Faith Academy.
Fourth and Long
Prior to the game, Kirk Long’s teammates tried to tell him what the atmosphere was going to be like for his first Ateneo-La Salle game. “It’s gonna be wild,” smiled super-sub Zion Laterre before the match. Long saw a few tapes but was hardly prepared for the intense and titanic atmosphere.
But the 18-year old from Kansas knows he’s not there anymore but smack in the middle of the hottest rivalry in these 7,100 islands. The pressure got to him in the early going as he airballed a pair of shots. Long shrugged, apologized, and promised to do better. And he played a big 27 minutes, finished with 6 points (all in the fourth quarter and overtime including a jumper reminiscent of Macky Escalona’s and four clutch free throws), and played good defense on La Salle’s guards and forwards.
When the game’s final buzzer sounded, his teammates mobbed him. “I hope to get better with every game,” he beamed while high-fiving his teammates.
Tiu for two big shots
Ateneo runs very precise sets with everyone moving to predetermined positions that react on what the defense gives them. The bigs anchor themselves for a post play, a screen or if they attract a double team then a kick out to the spot up snipers arrayed around the arc.
With the clock winding down to its final seconds of the first half, Rabah Al-Husseini set a huge pick then handed off the ball to Chris Tiu who nailed the trey from the left side corner to knot the count at 30-all.
Now in overtime, after a pair of crucial breaks where a botched free throw by Rico Maierhofer (La Salle would only make 19 of 33 shots an atrocious 56.7%) resulted in the possession arrow going Ateneo’s way 75-74. Tiu, who scored a quiet 10 points up to that point, was being guarded by JV Casio. Ren Ren Ritualo's heir got lost in the switching when Jai Reyes looked like he was going to drive for another of his teardrops. Tiu, who planted himself once more at the left corner pocket, received a pass from Reyes and with La Salle point guard Tyrone Tang doubling down on Ford Arao at the post, the Ateneo captain saw daylight.
Bang. 78-74 Ateneo.
A few more exchanges in free throws. A desperation attempt by Maierhofer to tie the game. And Round One was in the books for an Ateneo win; good for second place at 4-1. La Salle sank to 3-2, its second consecutive loss since 2005 (to FEU) along with a rejuvenated UST.
After the Ford Arao-Rico Maierhofer altercation, Walsham was still talking. Rabah Al-Husseini sidled up to him; looked him in the face without saying a word.
Talk is cheap. Why trade barbs when you can simply execute the play and give him a look?