On 10/11/12, a date that comes along once a century, the 75th Season of the UAAP came to an end. Like it has since 2008, the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles once again stood atop the UAAP mountaintop, a king among the other beasts in Philippine collegiate basketball.
In this diamond year for the UAAP, these Eagles proved to be the unbreakable team. A team that weathered the pre-season news of Coach Norman Black’s departure from the bench, then dealt with Ateneo booster Manny V. Pangilinan withdrawing from the Ateneo sports program before the playoffs started. Any team that was made of weaker stuff could have easily folded and imploded from these events. Instead, this squad, gathered themselves and kept their eyes on the proverbial prize.
It can be argued that this Ateneo title against the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers was the most difficult in its current five-peat run to win. UST showed more desire and guts to engage in a war of attrition with the Blue and White than any team since the University of the East Red Warriors pushed the Finals to a Game Three back in 2009.
In fact, all four Ateneo-UST games from the regular season to the Finals were decided by five points or less. It’s a testament to the talent level of the boys from España as well as the motivational skills of Coach Pido Jarencio that the Tigers were able to return to the Finals for the first time since they won it all in 2006.
Redemption for ‘06
Speaking of that 2006 UST Title, everyone from Katipunan was frothing at the mouth before this Finals series started because it gave the Eagles a chance at redemption. 2006 was one of the few times that Ateneo entered a UAAP Finals and lost. The other instances were 2001 against La Salle and 2003 versus Far Eastern University.
In the Norman Black era, 2006 has been the only big blot in the coach’s otherwise sterling Finals resume. Consider then that Ateneo got back at La Salle both in 2002 and 2008, then got revenge versus FEU in 2010 and 2011. Call it vindictiveness, call it vengeance, call it payback. Whatever you choose to call 2012, know that to the Ateneo community, winning this title for Coach Black’s UAAP swansong was just as sweet because it meant exorcising the 2006 ghosts for former Eagles JC Intal, Macky Escalona, Doug Kramer and Ford Arao.
The first quarter was marked by Kiefer Ravena exploding for nine early points. Meanwhile, in an inspired move, Jarencio’s pick of Kim Lo from his bench resulted in a surprising eight points, including two booming triples. The first quarter would end with the Growling Tigers leading 14-13 as Ateneo scoring was confined to Ravena and Slaughter.
The second quarter saw even more struggles on offense, particularly from the Blue Eagles. With Nico Salva unable to explode like he did in the first game, Slaughter was able to find some of the offense that seemed to have disappeared during the playoffs. The halftime score was knotted at 29-all in a defensive struggle far removed from the scoring showcase that was Game One.
If Salva and Ryan Buenafe were struggling to score, so were Aljon Mariano and Jeric Teng for UST. The two Tiger gunners combined for 47 huge points in the first game, but barely registered a squeak in this do-or-die contest. Instead, it was outgoing Sto. Tomas team captain Jeric Fortuna who put the “Comeback Cats” on his shoulders, mostly launching from beyond the arc but also scoring on a few floaters in the lane. With burly Karim Abdul frustrated by the Eagles’ defense and perhaps recognizing that his very short rotation ended up tiring his starters, Jarencio gave more playing time to seldom used bench players like Lo, Paolo Pe and the fresh-from-the-hospital Melo Afuang.
In the times that Slaughter would sit due to foul trouble, another outgoing Atenean in Justin Chua provided able relief. Chua, who started most of the 2010 season at center while Slaughter was serving his residency, showed why the Eagles easily placed their confidence in him during the third of their consecutive titles. Ably banging with Abdul while also hitting on some jumpers, Chua highlighted just how deep the Hail Mary squad’s bench truly was. Buenafe was held scoreless in this game, but made up for it with 11 rebounds, five assists, and one crucial steal in the endgame.
The final countdown
With Ateneo carrying a slim 47-46 lead heading into the final canto, the stage was set for an epic final chapter. The squad of “Mister 100 Percent” made their customary adjustments and run to secure a 59-51 with under seven minutes left in the ballgame but España’s finest didn’t get to this spot by just lying down. Embodying their own fiery coach’s spirit, UST finally got some big shots from Tata Bautista to come clawing back. The reported 20,186 gathered in the historic Big Dome gamely engaged in dueling chants of “One big fight!” and “Go USTe!”
As UST drew close at 60-58, Abdul committed a huge turnover with a slip while dribbling near the top of the key. Juami Tiongson then connected on a floater to give Ateneo some breathing room with a minute left. Another mental mistake happened when, fresh off a timeout, the Tigers couldn’t get the ball inbounds and were penalized a five second inbound violation. Teng and Slaughter exchanged split free throws for a 63-59 Blue Eagle advantage.
From there, Black turned to the one man who has consistently been a closer for him, the sophomore who is already showing flashes of becoming the next “King Eagle.” Ravena calmly crossed over Bautista before rising for a jumper that made the Blue and White lead 65-59. Again the Tigers fought back as Fortuna nailed the last of his triples to end at 20 points. Tiongson missed the chance to ice the game but missed two charities with 19 second left, and the Yellow side of the Araneta Coliseum held out hope of overtime.
However, like Larry Fonacier in 2002 and Nonoy Baclao in 2008, Tiongson delivered a defensive gem to seal an Ateneo title. His steal off Bautista’s careless pass with seven seconds remaining allowed Juami to dribble out the time, sending the gathered Ateneans into a frenzy. The historic fifth straight title was theirs.
Five titles in five years
The legacy of Tonino Gonzaga, Justin Chua and back-to-back Finals MVP Salva is unprecedented: five UAAP Championships in five years of play, losing less than 10 games in those five years. This trio goes out as they came in, as champions. For Oping Sumalinog, despite missing a season due to an ACL injury, his contributions off the bench on both offense and defense were crucial in securing the No. 1 seed for the Eagles. Greg Slaughter ends his two-year stay at Loyola Heights with two straight titles and the possibility of being the top draft pick in next year’s PBA draft.
As for Black, this immortalizes him as the best college coach from the past 40 years. He joins the legendary Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan as the only college coaches to win more than four titles in the UAAP.
Following the mass of thanksgiving held at the Church of the Gesu within the Ateneo campus, the coach joined his five graduating seniors in giving thanks to the entire Ateneo community for what he called his best eight coaching years ever. After his remarks, Ateneo booster Debbie Tan then announced that one of Ateneo’s scholarships would now be named “the Norman Black Athletic Scholarship,” ensuring that the greatest coach in the school’s history would always be intertwined with athletic excellence.
Ateneo now has eight total championships in the UAAP to add to the 14 it won in the old NCAA. The “Drive for Five” culminated on 10/11/12. Blue Eagle, the King.