A THROWBACK CHAMPIONSHIP and a Footnote (or Overtime!) on having to watch the Ateneo-UST knockout match while on a UST hospital bed

(note: pictures not mine. 🙂 )

It’s no secret to most that I’m an Atenean, and I guess that’s why the facts sometimes (okay, most of the time) often swell into metaphors every time I talk about the UAAP team – whether this year’s or last year’s, or any other’s.

But I am also a basketball fan. And I think for the first time in years, I’ve been enjoying Final Four basketball, the stories that unfold, the heroes, demigods and villains that enter the picture, without any ball and chain attached to my neck. I think the same goes for the coming Finals match. Without a shade of blue (NU dropped out too, so…) save for Araneta and/or MOA Arena’s courts, I get to enjoy such a high level of college hoops and a high, if not savage level of fanaticism from other schools. Yes, again, without direct consequences to my well-being. And I get to blog without much metaphorical bias (or so we think).

Now, we might as well bring out the cassette tapes of Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls, don those hip hop jerseys and cargo pants (low waist), and watch Tabing Ilog. We’re going back to the 90s. It’s DLSU vs UST!

For the benefit of those born after the Era of the Eagles, or were still too young to care (for those who were there, please correct me if I miss out on anything) :

In the more recent years of the UAAP (the 90s count as part of the modern era), the UST Tigers were the first to string together a cycle of championships. Four to be exact. From 1993 to 1996. (I’m using the year they won it, as opposed to school years.)

But to grasp how special that was, a bit of history: The league, as you might know, institutes a Final Four System, wherein the Top Four are rewarded with what can be the equivalent of “playoff spots.” In 1993, the rules stated that if a team swept the eliminations, they will automatically be champions. Pretty logical, eh? But bad for TV, I guess. So they instated the Step Ladder: if you sweep eliminations, you get one automatic Finals Slot, and there’s a convoluted way of number 3 going against number 2, etc. to decide who gets to challenge you who’s supposedly beaten everybody else already.

In any case, in 1993, before the rules changed, UST swept the eliminations. So automatic champions. Then came 1994, 1995, and 1996. And guess who they faced there? Yes. La Salle. All three years.

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Coach Aric del Rosario, the coach of the UST Growling Tigers during their Championship Cycle (now with the NCAA Altas).

FEU then gave a bit of breathing room for the league when they won the crown in 1997 against La Salle. But in 1998, after four years of bridesmaid finishes, La Salle finally became champion. And they would be so until 2001, establishing their own reign in the UAAP.

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RenRen Ritualo, the dreaded Rainman.

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Franz Pumaren coached La Salle during those years. His top players: MacMac Cardona (shown here) and Mike Cortez

After the reign of Gold, and then the reign of Emerald, were the back-and-forth years:

Then Ateneo came in 2002, to win an improbable championship.

FEU in 2003, 2004, and 2005 (2004 should have gone to La Salle, but they had shenanigans on eligibility. So FEU gave the league another break between championship cycles.) Then UST defeated Ateneo in 06. 2007 went to La Salle after they beat the UE Red Warriors (The stepladder we talked about earlier was in play here because UE swept the eliminations. But they fell to the Archers when it mattered most. Had the Warriors done this around 15 years earlier, they would have become champions, I guess.)

In 2008, the Eagles broke the old cycle of four rule, establishing their dominance from that year straight till 2012. Doing so gave them the longest championship streak by any school in the Final Four Era: Five straight First Place Finishes. (UE has a streak of six from the older days of the UAAP. The Eagles tried to tie that this year, I guess, but…).

But enough of the Eagles. Now, the stage is set for a rematch of the Kings of Old.

Everyone's excited for the Teng vs. Teng match. Past brotherly matchups in recent memory were coaching matchups: Dindo vs Franz Pumaren, Joel vs Koy Banal

Everyone’s excited for the Teng vs. Teng match. Past brotherly matchups in recent memory were coaching matchups: Dindo vs Franz Pumaren, Joel vs Koy Banal

Of course there’s the Teng vs. Teng battle. 4th year Jeric for UST. 2nd year Jeron for La Salle. Of course you’d want Jeric to win because it might be his last year, Jeron still has two more years, etc. etc. But nah. Anyone who has a brother and is competitive enough to love basketball knows that this is no different from one-on-ones in the neighborhood court. You try to keep the younger brother “in his place” but the younger brother tries to upstage the kuya. All in good competition. The only winner here is Alvin Teng. Great to see him, actually. He’ll be in the stands. Jarencio will be coaching. Caidic and Limpot on the other bench. Talk about throwback!

The Robocop with his two sons. "They're both champions" he said. Their schools might have something to say about that.

The Robocop with his two sons. “They’re both champions” he said. Their schools might have something to say about that.

But both teams have a good story this year. If they were contestants on an ABS-CBN reality show, they’d both have amazing sob stories to tell. La Salle changed its coaching staff two weeks before the start of the season. Went down to the wild mix in the middle of the pack at the end of the first round. Then went up all the way for nine straight victories (so far) to the championship. Jeron Teng’s free throw shooting is getting more reliable. The bench is superb and the depth is something to be scared about. The frontline is getting smarter. Coach Juno Sauler is looking more and more like a genius. And his motto: Just keep getting better everyday.

Coach Juno, making sure everyday is better.

Coach Juno, making sure everyday is better.

Throwback: The triggerman (and Jun Limpot) on one bench, Pido on the other. Throw in Robocop, and we're all set!

Throwback: The triggerman (and Jun Limpot) on one bench, Pido on the other. Throw in Robocop, and we’re all set!

Coach Nash Racela of FEU called La Salle, “The New Ateneo,” meaning La Salle is most probably the team with enough depth, firepower and maturity to string together championships again. Sauler is as level-headed as ever: just keep getting better everyday and let’s see where that takes us.

Meanwhile, UST was relegated to the middle of the pack until the end of the second round. They had to play against Ateneo for fourth place. Then had to beat NU twice. And miracle of miracles. Coach Pido still has some magic and fight in his pockets. They became the first Fourth Placer to unseat the First Placer. From almost leaving UST to getting them back to the Finals. (Jarencio for three! SWOOSH! Jawo would be proud.)

Coach Pido cried unabashedly right after the game, and during the interview. Few in his place wouldn't.

Coach Pido cried unabashedly right after the game, and during the interview. Few in his place wouldn’t.

Both teams are peaking at the right time. Both teams have good frontlines. The guards battle probably goes to La Salle. Depth also goes to La Salle – especially if Vosotros finds his rhythm again and Perkins continues his rampage. Wingmen – UST. Coaching – draw. Both are able to get the best out of their players at the time they need it, or steady their hearts if need be.

That said, I honestly don’t know whether to pick Gold or Green. I guess this year, I just get to simply enjoy the fact that for the first time since 1999, and after their epic battles even in the mid90s, we’ve got two titans trying to rule the earth again.

OVERTIME: WATCHING THE UST-ATENEO GAME IN UST HOSPITAL

where I watched UST beat Ateneo

where I watched UST beat Ateneo

Watching Ateneo fall to UST was tough (watching your team fall to any team is tough), not just because it booted us out of the Final Four for the first time in 15 years, but because I had to watch the game on a UST hospital bed (for those who don’t know, the UST hospital is right in the heart of the Pontifical Campus).

I had dengue. Was admitted in UST because my tito is a doctor there. Was admitted on a Saturday. And one of my concerns, believe it or not, was if i would have to stay in the hospital until Wednesday and watch the game there. Well, I ended up having to do so.

I remember the scene in the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when Frodo and Sam were nearing Mount Doom. Outside, Aragorn and his troops were trying to lure the Eye’s gaze away from the two hobbits so they could finish their mission. So Frodo and Sam got to see all the evil creatures from Mordor troop out and head toward the Black Gate where the battle was going to be.

It felt like that. Minus the evil, of course. Everyone was in yellow. EVERYONE. By 2PM, much of the crowd was gone. Not trooping to the Black Gate but to the LRT station probably, to go to Araneta. By 330, everyone was going to the Plaza Mayor, where they had set up a JumboTron.

When UST set up its big first half lead, it was noisy outside. It didn’t matter that the church and hospital were nearby. It didn’t help that the JumboTron was around a second early in its telecast. So when UST was going to make a shot, you knew whether it went in or not because the horde outside was happy.

Then Ateneo made its run, and I was connected to the dextrose but cheering. The crowd outside was silent. Ha. Then UST made its counter-run, and the crowd was back, roaring. Even more loudly this time because the game was about to end. But Ateneo made a swashbuckling, last-minute run and almost had the game, too. The nurses came in and wanted to switch my IV hand (because my left hand was already swollen), but I asked them if they can come back after the game. They obliged, but not before smiling and watching a bit of the game in my hospital room.

But alas. The happy horde wasn’t to be denied its revelry. And throughout the night, there was much merriment outside my hospital window.

Yes, the nurses came back after the game. And I had to congratulate them. And I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but I think I registered my lowest platelet count the morning after.

Why Ateneo sucked this year (and why we can probably face next year with a bit more of hope in our pockets)

Para sa mga di pa naka-move-on, para sa mga palaging tinatanong ng kaibigan at kamag-anak “Anyare sa Ateneo?” At para na rin sa tinatawag na closure. 

 For my part, I knew this year would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. 

 So here are 5 probable reasons, plus some bright spots to remember during the offseason. 

 

 (Pahabol: pics aren’t mine. 🙂 ) 

1. The Coach

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I think I incessantly blogged about it last year, and well, it looks like it was worth being incessant about. 

 

So here I go again: In college hoops, more than anywhere, the Coach embodies the program. Keyword: Program. A program assumes that your team, your finances, your scouting, and your strategies are built for a run that lasts. Take a look at Duke, North Carolina, Florida U, and all the successful college teams in the states. They’re not always champions, sure, but they always contend in the NCAA March Madness. They always have very excellent teams. And in all these cases, the program is an imprint of the coach and vice versa. 

 

Now think about the Ateneo Program, run for almost a decade by one of the best coaches in the country. The 3-4 month UAAP college hoops contest is only the proverbial tip of the basketball iceberg. That’s showtime. But behind the scenes, year-round, are practices, scouting guys like Baclao from the Visayas, teaching big men like Ford Arao and Doug Kramer not to suck so much. And preparing to do it all again next year. Together with the school’s athletics department, he ran a program. Not just coached a team. 

 

And in one flip of the page, he disappeared. 

 

Coach Bo Perasol is probably an able coach, and I’m sure he loves the players, but he is just that – at least as of now – : an able coach who loves his players. He is nowhere near the Pinoy Basketball Hall of Famer Norman Black is, teaching doesn’t seem to be one of his strong suits. 

 

I was reminded that Bo Perasol actually faced a very tough crowd with absurd expectations. He also wasn’t able to bring in his own coaching staff like a coach usually has the prerogative to do so. He also didn’t have all the players he was supposed to play with. 

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Which brings us to the next point: 

 

 

2. Kiefer Ravena 

 

 

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I remember a Facebook status I posted after Ateneo lost its first three games: 

 

“Now I know what it feels like to be a Lakers fan.” 

 

Of course, my Atenean friends who were also Lakers fans were the ones who understood, too. 

 

Imagine losing Phil Jackson at the start of the season. Then Kobe getting injured as the playoffs started. I think the losses were proportional: Losing a hall-of-famer coach then injuring your star player during a critical time of the season. 

 

You can argue, of course, that Kiefer Ravena was able to come back midway through the season. Then you can go on to say that Ateneo still had that chance because he was there. True, but I think what we weren’t able to see were the intangibles off the court: 

 

Kiefer wasn’t able to jell with his teammates right before the season started. He was never able to get his groove back. By the time he was inserted back into the starting lineup, the pressure and stakes had become too high that there was no more time nor room to find whatever rhythm you used to have. He was uncharacteristically sputtering: throwing away possessions, and even missing crucial free throws. 

 

Which then brings us to the next point (see? it’s a web!) 

 

3. As a team, they never really jelled. 

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Remember, the team was supposed to have Pinggoy. Together, he and Ravena and Buenafe were supposed to be an unstoppable machine. Then Ravena also fell to injury. Buenafe and Newsome found ways to win early in the season.. Then Ravena came back and the whole team had to find a way to work together again. 

 

Many times, in fact during their worst offensive stretches, they looked like they were just practicing. Soft passes. Soft picks. Running through the motions. Even during the critical stretches. Result: more turnovers that we could care to count. 

 

During their best moments, the defense was amazing. As soon as the bad shot was rebounded, or as soon as the steal was made, the offense was off and running. Which was what you wanted to see a team built to run do a lot more. There was no imposing inside presence, so you couldn’t run post-anchored offensive sets. And when the team WAS off and running, they were very difficult to stop. 

 

Not to say that they were also completely in sync on defense, too. Against UE in the first round and against NU in the 2nd, there were defensive plays down the stretch that could have definitely changed the outcome of the game. Instead, there were wide open shots for the opponent. 

 

Which leads us to… 

 

4. A lack of ABLE big men 

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Remember Greg Slaughter? Nonoy Baclao? Then there was a time when Norman Black transformed Ford Arao and Doug Kramer into good big men.

 

But this year, Erram and Golla did their best to fill in the gaps. However, they were often seen gasping for air, in foul trouble, or letting the big men of the opposing teams have their way. Of course it didn’t help that the other teams were using imports to boost their front line. 

 

I’m not saying you need a hulking presence in the middle to win a championship. I think FEU got its winning streak going by sticking to what it did best – high-powered guard and SF action + a lot of sweet shooting. But it had able big men to anchor the defense and at least hold the fort. 

 

Our big men, again, did their best. They huffed. They puffed. But our house kept falling down. 

 

5. The other teams just got really better this year. 

 

Aside from UP, everyone was just raring to go. 

 

There were the imported big men from all over. There were the teams that were waiting for half a decade to finally show that they too had the stuff to win titles. La Salle had been all fired up, waiting for the right time. I would be, too, if my arch rivals lorded it over me for 5 straight years. NU was also raring to show that it had vastly improved. FEU was also out to win it all. UST, UE, and Adamson were not pushovers, either. 

 

So as teams became better, Ateneo’s level of excellence dropped. Wrong time to do so, I know, but that’s how it goes. 

 

 

 

 

Good points for next year: 

 

1. You can be sure the team would have already jelled. Losing together, being crushed together, and then coming to camp with a full roster, are bound to make sure the Blue Eagles’ Machine won’t be conking out rust when it’s needed to work again. 

 

2. The sting of this year’s defeat will definitely make them come out with bigger hearts next year. I don’t think a guy like Kiefer Raven will take losing lightly. 

 

3. Coaching Improvements

I’m NOT saying that there needs to be a coaching change. For all you know, Coach Bo Perasol will find his way next year, straight into the Final Four, and out of trouble. In any case, if Coach Sandy Arespacochaga forgives us for the abuse he suffered from the community some years back when he first tried serving as head coach, maybe he can also coach us. I honestly don’t know if he’ll do a better job than Coach Bo, but during that year he was head coach, he was 7-0 in the first round, and we made it into the Final Four. This year, Coach Sandy has grown immensely – he is not just assistant in the Ateneo squad, he’s also Coach Norman’s assistant in the Talk N’ Text pro squad. During the game against UST, he coached magnificently: he found a way to get the team back  into the game despite being down by double digits, he found words to get the big men going against Abdul, he risked calling his last timeout with a lot more time left but it produced good results. All I’m saying is the guy’s ready. Again.

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4. It’s  just a bad year in the program. Again, Ateneo can look ahead because its basketball team is only part of a program. Recruitment, training, etc. go on and on and on because the program is in place.