Big games are transcendent. They go beyond place. And sometimes, if they as fortunate as a half-court three pointer, they transcend time. This particular game had not yet withstood the test of time, but it sure transcended location. As UAAP finals games have a habit of doing.
My girlfriend and I weren’t able to join our friends at the MOA Arena to watch Game 1 of the UAAP Finals featuring UST and Ateneo, but we sure felt the bigness of the game in other ways.
Chili’s Greenbelt 5. First half. People started coming in, ordering Margaritas and beer. Even the ones who didn’t come in to watch the game started turning their heads toward the screens at the Margarita bar more often. You could hear the muted groans and discreet mutterings of worry. Nervousness was creeping in, though everyone was trying to gauge whether the rest of the resto was hostile (In nearby Greenbelt 3, National Sports Grill was hosting its own version. They set up a big screen and sound system at their al fresco area. Watching this crowd from afar on different occasions, they could get pretty rowdy).
Come the second half, we were one. It had been deciphered and decided through spontaneous yet synchronized cheers that the crowd was a nest of eagles. Everyone was counting how many points the run had gone up to. Shyness and discreetness had vanished to give way to explicit “Ooooohs!” and “Yuns!” I could only imagine what it feels like to watch a Football game in a London pub.
Everyone, like us, were texting their friends and loved ones in different areas of Metro Manila. Checking their Facebook News Feeds. Tweeting. The Coliseum had become virtual. That’s what big games do.
The game, though, was biggest, for Nico Salva. 30 points. Ranks among the highest number of points scored in a Finals Game.
The first half featured guts, initial nervousness, and a ton of turnovers. The sloppiness made it look like covered courts basketball. At the end of the first half, Ateneo would end up with 10 turnovers and only eight assists. The pace was electric, and points-off-turnovers came rapidly. Which worked well for the Growling Tigers, who were up by 7 at the end of the half.
The Tiger defense was at its best. Abdul changing shots in the post. The guards did a great job on the perimeter on Kiefer. There were times he was even double-teamed (In the end, Kiefer would be “kept” to “just” 13 points, and Slaughter to only 5). Thus, the ball found its way again and again to one man: Salva. He kept the score respectable.
“WHAT DID YOU TELL US AGAIN, COACH?”
Halftime happened. The eagles came swinging out of the locker room with a 17-0 blitzkrieg that tipped the score from 38-31(UST) to 48-38 (Ateneo). It would actually mushroom into a 20-4 run until the 3:04 mark of the third. As Ateneo continued biting off UST’s lead and slowly mounting their own, I kept saying, “Timeout na, Pido!” I remembered the game against La Salle when Ateneo went on a run to erase an 11 point deficit in the fourth. Coach Abanilla of La Salle didn’t call a timeout then until it was too late. The same was happening to Coach Jarencio. I said to myself, “Pagsisisihan niya ‘to (He will regret this).”
What did Norman Black say in the locker room in that halftime huddle? Salva was asked that same question after the game. His response was “What did you tell us, coach?” The heat of the moment and the wildness of adrenaline was most probably coursing through his veins and mind. He remembered that Norman Black just told them to play Ateneo ball and not be afraid of Abdul.
Play Ateneo ball they did. They played with their trademark discipline and gutsiness. They took care of the ball, and stopped rushing shots. They defended when necessary. They attacked Abdul in the middle, putting him in foul trouble.
TIGERS ROAR BACK
But UST will not just roll over. Nor did anyone expect them to. They got on a run of their own: a 12-2 run to bring the game closer to the eagles. They even led at one point. Everyone was running up and down the court again, and the Eagles couldn’t seem to bring their legs down the court to play transition defense.
Nervousness crept back into Chili’s again. Our waiter seemed to be the only one happy. He couldn’t help but clap and raise two fists when UST scored go-ahed baskets.
But it was too late. The Tigers had let the Eagles’ cylinders heat up, and suddenly everyone chipped in to finish the game. Big-Game Buenafe put in that crucial 4 point play. Kiefer put in that dagger 2. Tiongson, probably primarily responsible for that crazy turnover-riddled first half roared back and even won for himself a sponsored award which the telecast called the Game Changing Player or something. Justin Chua found himself open and scored. And yes, Salva’s scoring engine just kept humming. He even scored a three pointer.
Pido could be seen wildly frustrated at the sidelines. He reminded me of Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. In the third movie, Saruman was seen at his balcony, frustrated and lamenting the burning of Isengard.
Okay, Saruman was probably an exaggeration, but Pido came close. He was doing weird gestures (putting the back of his hand to his neck and seemed to be wiping sweat. I’m still trying to figure out what that meant). He was also seen trying to be restrained by his assistants. He just shoved their arms off. He talked to the refs after the game. He also issued a statement calling the officiating ugly, among other things.
It might have been too ticky-tacky, true, but it was ticky-tacky both ways.
I was actually surprised to see coach Pido lose it. I’ve always respected how he inspires his guys and how he keeps his calm, knowing they can figure out a way to win it at the end. Was he frustrated not just at the officiating, but even with his guys, how they lost the lead, and even with himself?
(More on this year’s officiating in a later entry!)
Meanwhile, Jasmine Payo’s (Inquirer) research tells us that Nico Salva’s 30 points made him only the third player in the past decade to reach the 30 point mark in a championship game (My brothers tell me the other two were also Ateneans: Tenorio and Al Hussaini).
And if he wins another game – meaning another championship – “he will be on the brink of a rare feat of winning a championship in every season of his five-year varsity career.”
HAVEN’T I SEEN THIS BEFORE?
It was kind of funny seeing Doug Kramer watching the game live. He reminded me that it was his last second basket that gave the Blue Eagles the Game 1 win against UST six years ago. That basket would be eclipsed by two phenomenal UST games led by Jojo Duncil.
I think every Atenean who is old enough to remember 2006 didn’t post celebratory statuses on their Facebook walls just yet.
After all, lest we forget, there is a song called “Eye of the Tiger.”
Anyhow, we left Chili’s with our leftover tostadas on the table, as well as a nice tip for our waiter. A little something to make him smile despite the disappointment. Who knows? The table could easily be turned on Thursday.