Three for History
This year’s UAAP title wasn’t for the Ateneo Blue Eagles to lose; it was theirs to win.
by rick olivares
A few minutes after the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ dismantled the highly fancied Far Eastern University Tamaraws in the Finals of the Season 73 UAAP Men’s Basketball Tournament, the young man who guaranteed a three-peat one year earlier left the frenzied celebration at center court for the sidelines. Ryan Buenafe shook the hands of some friends, put on a championship shirt, then stood up on the now empty Ateneo bench and spread his arms as if to embrace the jubilant blue and white gallery. The newly anointed King Eagle who earlier strapped the Blue Eagles on his back in a virtuoso performance recalled images of Enrico Villanueva eight years earlier when the powerful Ateneo center spread his arms to the teeming blue mass after he helped end a 14-year title drought in Loyola Heights.
The ecstatic crowd showered Buenafe with a thundering ovation that had the venerable and storied venue rocking.
Over by center court, lost in the midst of the chaotic revelry, two men shared a happy embrace. There was the Ateneo head coach Norman Black and his graduating team captain Eric Salamat.
While it was but one of the many hugs of joy being enacted not just throughout the arena but everywhere else in the world where blue hearts and loyalties were sworn. It was a poignant moment unbeknownst to many.
When Norman Augustus Black assumed the mantle of head coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles in 2005, aside from organizing his coaching staff that had been reshuffled to accommodate him, the American mentor went out to recruit Salamat, a fearless two-guard from San Sebastian College who just came off winning a juniors title for the Staglets in the NCAA. He was a peerless defender; a one-man wrecking crew who pilfered opposing ball carriers’ pockets and en route to a fastbreak bucket. He would be a perfect addition to the kind of hellacious defensive team that Black envisioned.
In Salamat’s rookie year, Ateneo booked its first finals appearance under Black. The Blue Eagles took Game One in arguably the most scintillating championship finish ever when fifth year forward Doug Kramer answered what appeared to be a game winning shot by UST Growling Tiger Allan Evangelista with lay-up right before time expired. But that was the last hurrah as the blue and whites were upended in the final two matches of the series.
The team had to endure one more heartbreak in the following campaign’s Final Four before they finally scaled the summit two years later in Season 71 when they took down defending champion De La Salle in a most memorable finals clash.
The ascent was sweet and arduous and now that the Blue Eagles were on top of the Mount Olympus of Philippine college basketball and they had every intention of staying up there for a considerable while.
And stay they did as they accomplished a feat that no Ateneo team since the nascent days of the NCAA were able to accomplish. Aside from team management and the coaching staff, the one player who had been with Black through the incredible journey from the bottom to the top, was Salamat.
The Anatomy of a Champion
The championship hangover of back-to-back titles (2008-09) had hardly died down when team management sat down one week later to map out the following season’s campaign and title defense. “Our attitude was, ‘we want to build for next year.’” recalled Black. “That shows you right there what the program stands for. What the people behind it are all about. It’s about winning the right way.”
First of all, there was team patron and business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan whose Midas touch has changed the fortunes of many a business property. “MVP” as he is fondly called is viewed than more than a financier for the Ateneo basketball program. “He is like a teammate,” pronounced Blue Eagles point guard Emman Monfort.
“He’s a friend who genuinely cares not only for the school but also the basketball team and what it stands for,” added team manager Paolo Trillo who also came on board with Black in 2005. “He doesn’t like losing but he can accept it if you try hard. But win or lose, the support and guidance that he gives, his presence, generosity, and friendship really lifts this team up.”
Then there was Black who was a winner many times over as a player and as a coach in the PBA. “It is a dream for many a young basketball player to study and play for Ateneo but when you add Norman Black to the equation,” said team chaplain Fr. Nemy Que S.J. “that makes it an even sweeter proposition. He’s not just a basketball coach but also a teaching coach who helps in the formation of young men. That is probably why we have the sons of former players and coaches here because they know how Norman conducts his training.”
The Blue Eagles play anywhere from 65-70 games a year not counting intra-team scrimmages. The bulk of those are played in the summer. The program and the tournaments are meticulously planned with the goal of peaking at the right time during the UAAP tournament.
One of the tournaments that the team regularly participates in is the University Games. Since the Uni-games come after the UAAP season, the graduating players are no longer required to suit up to make way for the holdovers to develop their game. It also gives the coaching staff an opportunity to recruit. Monfort was discovered this way.
While playing for Ateneo de Iloilo, Monfort was easily the star of his team. He once scored back-to-back 50-point games, a feat that did not escape the attention of the Blue Eagle coaching staff. “When we invited him to work out with us we were surprised to see how small he was,” recalled Black with a grin. “But he did very well with our shooting drills that we said, ‘we’ll take him!’”
And there was Kirk Long, the scoring sensation from Faith Academy in Antipolo City by way of Kansas. It helped that Black once played alongside Kirk’s father Jeff in the World Harvest Basketball League during his early years in the Philippines.
In his final year with Faith Academy, the Vanguards, as the school’s varsity teams are known by, played the Staglets of Buenafe. Although the NCAA junior champions won the match, future teammates Long engaged Buenafe in a shootout where both scored at least 40 points each.
There was also the rookie class of Season 71 in former San Beda stalwart Nico Salva, Chang Kai Shek center Justin Chua, and Buenafe.
Buenafe was one of the most sought after players following his storied career with San Sebastian where he led the Staglets to three straight titles. Gushed Trillo: “Just seeing him practice with us while he was in fourth year high school, we knew right away that he is the key to winning a championship or two. While his conditioning has been a question mark, he is just a gifted player with an extremely high basketball IQ. We knew that with many key players from our back-to-back championship gone, it was just his time to shine.”
“In the team’s composition, you will find many who were high school MVPs, mythical five selections, top scorers, or the best players on their team,” explained Black. “This helps us a lot because they know what it’s like to win, what it takes to win, and how to win. Believe it or not, they aren’t very difficult to teach especially when it comes to our defense first approach.”
As the team prepared to achieve a feat the Ateneo has been unable to duplicate for over 70 years, they added a couple of big men to replace former MVP Rabeh Al-Hussaini and Nonoy Baclao in Jason Escueta, John Paul Erram, and Jeric Estrada.
Escueta was a decent offensive rebounder whose bulk would help against players like FEU’s Reil Cervantes and UP’s Magi Sison who oft tried to take the ball inside against Ateneo. Erram was another shot blocker in the mold of Baclao albeit raw and inexperience. Estrada, was the latest San Sebastian Stag to crack the Blue Eagles line-up. If the three of them along with Chua and Golla could turn the shaded lane into a no-fly zone and haul down those rebounds to fuel the dreaded Ateneo fatsbreak, then the team would be a tough one to beat.
But that remained to be seen. While most basketball analysts, even many among the Ateneo faithful, thought that this was the weakest Blue Eagle team in recent memory and conceded the title to FEU, the team’s brain trust knew that this team was good enough to win it all.
Hints of greatness
In the last four years, the team has gone to the United States during the summer to train in the Joe Abunassar Basketball Camp in Las Vegas, Nevada. In the summer of 2010, the Blue Eagles took a break from their regular stints in the Fil Oil tournament and the Fr. Martin Cup to repair to the Las Vegas camp while adding the Los Angeles camp to their itinerary.
After soundly beating an AAU team in one scrimmage in Las Vegas, the Blue Eagles found themselves the following day up against a team that was beefed up with NBA prospects including Sharron Collins who helped the Kansas Jayhawks to the US NCAA title in 2008 and was the winningest player in his school’s university.
Initially, Collins said that he’d play for five minutes before taking off. The other players also playfully dismissed the Filipinos as pushovers. One even remarked out loud that “there’s a mouse in the house” referring to Monfort’s presence.
Once the game started, Ateneo ran the Americans ragged with a stunning display of team play where the ball seemingly never touched the floor as players hit one basket after another.
Collins, who in now with the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA, was supposed to only play for five minutes, but as the game went on and the level of intensity kicked up several notches higher, the Jayhawk was seen arguing with his coach who tried to substitute him. “I want to play!” yelled the 5’11 guard. “I want to play.”
Although the Blue Eagles eventually ran out of steam and lost the scrimmage, they gained a lot of respect from the Americans. “Do you guys ever lose back in the Philippines?” wondered one impressed coach.
“After the game, all they could ever talk about as well was “the mouse” (Monfort) who was hitting his shots from everywhere on the court,” said a proud Fr. Que of that summer game.
A few weeks later when the team returned for its American sojourn, the team beat old NCAA rival Mapua for the Fr. Martin Cup title.
Putting history in perspective
Winning three straight basketball championships is difficult. Difficult might be an understatement but it is evidently doable as the San Beda Red Lions achieved the feat recently.
The Ateneo was the first to achieve it when the NCAA was in its infancy. Other teams were able to accomplish the feat and even best it over time. The Red Lions ended Ateneo’s string of titles in the 1930’s with one of their own. The UE Red Warriors as coached by former Blue Eagle Baby Dalupan won seven straight in the UAAP. The UST Glowing Goldies of the 1990’s won four consecutive titles. The San Sebastian Stags won five straight and La Salle also pulled off their own four-peat in the UAAP.
The Blue Eagles weren’t without their chances to achieve another hat trick of their own. They had four other opportunities to do so after winning back-to-back titles. But each time they were denied.
History didn’t seem to be on the Ateneo’s side.
“This year, we said that we’d look at this as winning this championship,” explained Arespacochaga. “If you think, ‘Wow, we have to win this so we can get a three-peat’ it becomes a burden.”
“We talked about achieving a three-peat,” confirmed fourth-year swingman Raymond Austria. “Who doesn’t want to accomplish it, right? But like every game, we just have to take it one at a time.”
In the supposed year of parity, almost every team in the league was assessed to be capable of beating anyone on any given day. Perhaps save for the FEU Tamaraws.
The Tamaraws brought back almost their entire crew from the previous year bolstered by key acquisitions. They were tall, athletic, talented, deep, and hungry to snatch that crown atop Ateneo’s head.
The Blue Eagles in the meantime had a gaping hole at center. For the boys in blue to win it all over again in 2010, it would take more than a change in mindset.
It was time to get creative.
One thing was for sure. With a thinner line-up, the coaching staff couldn’t afford to have serious injuries to its key players.
“We would have to invert our strength,” plotted Black of the offensive scheme. Without the dominant big man, the team had to find a way of posting up Salamat, Salva, and Buenafe.
And as terrifying as the Tamaraws were, the coaching staff’s biggest worry was Adamson. “If we could get past Adamson who was the only team bigger than us, we could do It.” theorized Black. “Not only are they more athletic and taller than us but they are well coached.”
The Falcons booted the Blue Eagles out of the Fil Oil Pre-season Invitational as they dominated Ateneo from the perimeter and inside the paint. Adjustments were made: Salamat was inserted at point guard while Long was at the two-guard. Buenafe, with a better work ethic was once more ensconced at the three-spot while former National Youth Team member Frank Golla played the four while Chua manned the slot.
Golla’s inclusion in the starting unit gave the team a different dimension. A banger inside, Golla did the dirty work and didn’t mind banging bodies with opponents. It got so that opposing players didn’t want to bang with him. “He’s our glue man,” crowed Black.
“The off-season isn’t a true gauge of how good the team could be,” cautioned Trillo. “Coach (Norman) plays everyone; gives everyone a chance to play. Now even if we lost some key players, we still had talent. Even without knowing the strength of all the other teams, I knew we were a legitimate contender.
At first, the 6’7” Erram was given the starting slot, but as the UAAP tournament got going, it was evident that he lacked the experience. Black turned once more to third year center Justin Chua who after a sterling Uni-games the year before all but disappeared from the rotation.
During the back-to-back title runs, Chua once asked Black what it would take for him to get playing time. “Justin, it’s not what you are not doing but what Rabeh (Al-Hussaini) is doing correctly.”
When the opportunity came for Chua during the summer before Season 73, Black was unimpressed. Chua was largely unable to adjust his talent to the college game. He repeatedly tried to put the ball down the floor where he oft lost it to opposing guards and forwards. What the team needed was his defense and rebounding. Once he got that right and he began to hit all those outside shots (against UST in the first round), then Chua settled into a groove and into the regular rotation.
Come the UAAP season, the team sets for itself several goals: to make it to the Final Four, to secure the twice-to-beat advantage, to make it to the Finals, and to win.
Normally, a rotation would have been in place following the summer tournaments. But as the team struggled early on, Salva and Erram were inserted into the second and third team respectively, while Buenafe and Chua moved up to the starting unit.
Following a disappointing 2-2 record that included an opening day loss to FEU and an uncharacteristic meltdown against La Salle after spotting them a healthy lead with the game winding down, the Blue Eagles went on a six-game win skein including a double digit demolition of the Green Archers.
The team ended its elimination round assignment the way they began the season – with a 2-2 slate with losses to UE and FEU that mirrored the first round stunners.
What others failed to look at as Ateneo finished with a 10-4 record was how the other teams weren’t exactly pushovers. Some performed better than advertised while others floundered with disappointing performances.
While the loss to UE might seem like “a hiccup” as some players described it, the Red Warriors were on a second round tear beating the top squads save for the rejuvenated National University Bulldogs that eventually finished fifth in the league.
Nevertheless, the loss sent warning signals to maintain the team’s focus.
Recounted Ateneo de Manila University President Fr. Benvienido Nebres S.J., “In the 2007 season the Blue Eagles were on their way to win a twice to beat advantage. Then they lost to NU in a poorly played game. MVP remained in his seat after the game, deeply disappointed and pained. At the Gesu mass that closed out the disappointing Season 70 campaign, he said: ‘I do not like to lose.’"
“That signaled that we had to do everything to win the next season. He called a meeting the next week and in that meeting discussed the key recruits for season 2008: Ryan Buenafe, Nico Salva, Justine Chua, Vince Burke. In the teambuilding before the 2008 season, he reminded all: ‘No more NU type losses.’”
Putting the 10-4 elimination round finish, Kirk Long put it succinctly: “I think that people got spoiled by the 13-1 seasons.”
Because of the less than stellar finish, the close shaves to Adamson and UST as well as the two losses to FEU, the Blue Eagles were given a snowball’s chance in Hades of winning a third straight championship.
“What everyone else failed to see was how the team began to play so much better in practice,” said Black. “Against FEU, we tried to win the game of course, but we’re not going to show our hand against them.”
The Eye of the Storm
The Ateneo Blue Eagles aren’t solely powered by a burning desire for glory in this basketball republic. Prayer also fuels the team and a lot of off-court team building.
“From beginning, the players liked each other and that’s quite important,” underscored Fr. Que. “When you’re on court, you know where everybody is. They also knew that they knew they could not depend on any single player to step up because they will all have to step up.”
“It helped that our roles were defined,” added Monfort.
“Everyone from Tonino Gonzaga who made practices even more competitive to Carlo Balmaceda who never hesitated to share his observations with the coaching staff; everyone just contributed because they all had a stake in this.” said Arespacochaga.
“We had this team building session at the Discovery suites before Final Four,” recounted Fr. Que. “It’s a session that evaluates what has happened help us move forward. Each person – coaches and players -- is asked what they thought of the past games and what they think should be done.”
Fr. Nebres and MVP reminded the team that the playoffs were an altogether different season. And the business magnate, who had seen many a an achievement against seemingly impossible odds, underscored one important fact: "FEU can be beaten."
One of those who surprisingly became more vocal as the year went on was Buenafe. In that team building session, he spoke up.
Recalled Fr. Que of the enigmatic forward: “He started to lead and encourage his teammates. Ryan came out as a leader. It was important in the make up of the team and for himself. And though he didn’t score much in the Final Four match against Adamson and in Game One against FEU, he did a little of everything like he did all throughout the season. By Game Two, he was ready.”
And during the practices leading up to the Final Four took a wholly different tone; something that was not lost on team officials. Related Black, "These are the best practices we have had. The scoring was low, but that was because defense was so good."
Taking their game to a higher level, the Blue Eagles blew out Adamson 68-55, only the second time the team won by a lopsided margin of the Norman Black era. The victory was so thorough and convincing that coupled with the 14-year losing streak, one has to wonder what kind of damage was done to the team’s collective psyche.
And thus Ateneo barged into the Finals where FEU awaited them. It was the match up everyone was waiting for. It was supposed to be Season 72’s Finals match-up as well except that the UE Red Warriors had other ideas.
During Season 73’s opening weekend, it was the one white hot match-up. Regardless of the outcome, it was the Finals Preview, many said. And now it was to played out on the grand stage of the Araneta Coliseum. For all the marbles. For pride. And for history.
Motivated by pride, a mission, history, and inspiration from team patron Manuel V. Pangilinan, the blue and whites made mincemeat out of the Tamaraws in Game One in front of a screaming blue gallery as well as a stunned green and gold one. The massacre was also played out on national television and incredibly to even better ratings.
Trillo who had been sick for a number of days prior to the finals told himself before the match that he’d sit down and not react to anything, as he was afraid of suffering a relapse. Once the game started and the Ateneans turned the game into one layup line, Trillo couldn’t control himself as he finally got off from him seat and jumped up and down in excitement. “Never mind if I get a relapse, this is great!”
“We came out with a lot of energy,” said Buenafe. “We heard what everyone said about us and we wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
“After awhile, you could see them just give up.” added Long. “It was only Paul Sanga who kept fighting in there and egging his teammates.”
Following the 72-49 demolition, the Tamaraws, responded as if their manhood was in question. “We will show them (Ateneo) that we are not cowards.,” promised FEU point guard Jens Knuttel.
With many basketball observers still in disbelief, FEU was still favored to level the series. “Disrespect? I’m not sure,” wondered Arespacochaga. “But I do know that this team likes challenges.”
As Game Two began, the Tamaraws tried to serve notice early that the first game’s whitewashing was already a memory. Combined with their physicality, FEU took an early lead. “We met their physicality,” said Long. “and didn’t back down from it. We took their best shot and handled it well. And when we finally overtook them, it was a matter of finishing it off.”
Three for Three
There were 32 seconds left in the game with Ateneo on top by a slim 61-59 lead when Ryan Buenafe got hold of the basketball after a hand off from Nico Salva. The third year forward had been suppressing all sorts of different emotions inside of him over the past three years. After a promising freshman year, he was relegated to the bench. And although he was every bit as integral to the success of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, he chafed at his role. “I’m greedy,” he divulged to a few close friends. “It’s never about the statistics. It was about playing time and with the ball in my hands in the clutch.”
He wanted the responsibility of taking the big shot. If the ball fell in then it was all good. If he missed then he wouldn’t mind taking the flack. It comes with the territory.
Buenafe immediately noticed that it was Tamaraws rookie Carl Cruz in front of him. Cruz checked in earlier for JR Cawaling who Buenafe burned badly on many a post up earlier in the game. Except the move backfired because Buenafe was out in the perimeter. The Blue Eagle quickly waved off his teammates away for an isolation play. Thinking he was going to drive to the basket, Tamaraws center Al Ramos positioned himself behind Cruz to protect against the drive.
Only Buenafe wasn’t taking it to the rack.
With the shot clock winding down to five seconds, Buenafe instead threw up a trey. “I was really going to take that three-point shot. When it left my hands, it felt good. I knew I was going to make it,” said the third year forward who was named Finals MVP after.
“Ryan has been shooting seven percent from three-point land,” said a victorious Black afterwards with a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t stop him, but I didn’t encourage it either. He had a lot of confidence that he can take that shot.”
“We’ve seen it happen before,” added Trillo. “We knew he was going to take that shot.”
Arespacochaga has his own version of Buenafe’s shot: “I was going, ‘Oh no, Ryan, what are you doing… yes!!!’”
The form and follow through was perfect. And the shot -- and what a big time shot it was – swished right through the net as bedlam erupted from three-fourths of the Araneta Coliseum. It was three for three. The first modern three-peat for Ateneo had been accomplished.
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Ateneo is the first team to accomplish a three-peat in both the NCAA and the UAAP.
All three titles during the three-peat were accomplished on a Thursday.
This was Ateneo’s sixth win in nine finals appearances in the UAAP and first title win outside the victories against UE and DLSU in the UAAP Finals.
Eric Salamat is the first Blue Eagle since Bing Ouano to play in four finals series. Ouano played in the Ateneo’s three-peat team of 1931-33 and in 1934 when the blue and whites lost to San Beda College.
Norman Black is not only the longest tenured coach of the Blue Eagles since Baby Dalupan in the 1970’s but he is the winningest coach in Ateneo history with a collective record of 79-23.
Salamat also shares Black’s record and is thus, the winningest Blue Eagle ever.
When asked what was better for Norman Black – the Grand Slam he accomplished as the coach of the San Miguel Beermen in the PBA or the three-peat with Ateneo – the sixth-year mentor of the Blue Eagles didn’t miss a beat: “This one with Ateneo because this is more meaningful because it’s for an entire community.”