In his final year playing for the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles, Nico Salva has dealt with consistency issues.
When he won the 2011 UAAP Finals Most Valuable Player when Ateneo swept Far Eastern University (FEU), it seemed Salva was ready to make the leap to superstardom. But on a deep squad that has Greg Slaughter, Kiefer Ravena, and the returning 2010 UAAP Finals MVP in Ryan Buenafe, could Salva still summon the offensive numbers?
His scoring has been up and down, after explosive performances early on, Nico was held to a measly seven points versus the University of the East before he exploded for 24 against Adamson. His scoring went down once again to only six versus FEU and 10 versus University of the Philippines when the second round began.
The second encounter versus FEU had Salva with 15 markers (bludgeoned by cheap tactics from Roger Pogoy, Mac Belo and the other Tamaraw bigs), while the second game versus archrivals La Salle pegged him at only 12 points.
In the Blue Eagles’ second loss of the season, Salva was once again limited to six points on 3-for-11 shooting from the field.
Add to this up-and-down scoring the controversy that exploded when FEU assistant coach Ronald Magtulis supposedly threatened him with harm (and the subsequent confrontation between Magtulis and Nico’s father Amando), and it would be easy to write off the forward’s UAAP season as pure inconsistency.
Finding his touch again
But this is Nicholas Raymond Salva. For four years, all he’s done for Ateneo Coach Norman Black is whatever is needed of him, especially when the games count.
Since his arrival in Loyola Heights, the Blue Eagles have lost less than 10 games total. When Buenafe was held out of the Ateneo varsity last season, it was Salva who took up the cudgels and proceeded to destroy FEU for leaving him open from mid-range even as he finished strong at the hoop for his drives.
For the Final Four encounter between Ateneo and La Salle, Ravena got most of the attention for his explosive fourth quarter, but Salva helped keep the Blue and White in the contest during the first half with 12 markers.
Even as Ateneo prepared for a rough Finals match-up with the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers, most UAAP followers looked at Aljon Mariano, the Tiger who returned to the UST squad after taking a year off due to injury, as the X factor. Indeed, Mariano displayed offense both inside and outside the shaded lane on the way to 22 points. But it was Salva whose star shone brightest on this day.
It was Salva who scattered 15 points in the first half and 15 in the second half, leading Ateneo’s charge as they made their 17-0 run in the third. From a 31-38 halftime deficit, Ateneo suddenly had a 48-38 lead with less than four minutes left in the period.
And when UST made their own run in the final canto, it was Salva, showing off a variety of fakes, fearless drives and a three-pointer to boot, that kept Ateneo afloat.
True, Slaughter and Karim Abdul basically canceled each other out with their anemic offensive performances. Ravena and Jeric Teng engaged in their own scoring duel in the second half as neither team wanted to let go of the other.
And Buenafe, the trash-talking, do-it-all forward with his ability to make the biggest shots in the biggest moments, will be remembered for his four-point play off a costly Teng foul.
A legacy of flight
Yet this was Nico Salva’s day. Now wearing the number 8 that Kobe Bryant once had for his own, Salva channeled his inner Black Mamba as he shot the ball from all over the court and gave the requisite staredowns to the Ateneo gallery as a bonus on the way to 30 huge points.
He was only the third player to score 30 or more in the UAAP Finals since 2004. The previous two to do so were fellow Blue Eagles LA Tenorio and Rabeh al-Hussaini.
Salva’s competitiveness and his desire to end his collegiate career by winning a championship every single time he put on an Ateneo jersey powered the Eagles’ 83-78 victory.
Not even all the complaining of UST Coach Jarencio can diminish that fact.
Now poised to claim the unbelievable fifth straight UAAP title, the Hail Mary Squad braces itself for the departures of Slaughter, Tonino Gonzaga, Justin Chua, Oping Sumalinog and Coach Black.
But perhaps no loss will be bigger than Salva’s graduation from the Blue and White. For when things turned grim and a basket was required in a big playoff game, Black often turned to the power forward from San Beda High School to deliver.
Still, that tale has yet to be told. Ateneo still has to secure the crucial second game to avoid what happened when they last faced Santo Tomas in the UAAP Finals back in 2006. Back then, Doug Kramer’s improbably game-winner gave Ateneo a 1-0 lead, but Jojo Duncil and Jervy Cruz helped the Tigers win the next two games to deliver Jarencio a championship in his rookie year as coach.
There are many differences in these two squads and the teams that played six years ago. Not the least of which is a fearless forward with a complete offensive game poised to rise to the top of the UAAP mountain once more.