Ateneo's Von Pessumal gestures after scoring a three pointer against La Salle. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
It’s just two games in. It’s not supposed to mean much. It was played before lunch time.
These are all statements that could have applied to the most recent encounter between archrivals Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle. Yet those would also be statements made by those who are not steeped in this ancient rivalry.
For every game, nay, every encounter, between the Blue Eagles and the Green Archers means something. And this encounter, only the second regular season game for each side, was no different.
After failing to defend their fifth straight championship and falling out of Final Four contention last season, the pressure mounted on this season’s Blue Eagle squad to remedy that as Ateneo aggressively pursued the best high school prospects in the country to do so.
Rebuilding versus reigning
Though UAAP Juniors MVP Thirdy Ravena, NCAA Juniors Finals MVP Arvin Tolentino, John Apacible, Jay Javelosa, and Clint Doliguez signaled a stellar rookie class, everyone in Loyola Heights knows that this could have been even better had the decrepit and self-righteous UAAP Board gotten off their collective high horse to let both Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani suit up in Blue and White. Instead, both star guards will don the Ateneo colors next season, even as this team of Eagles attempts to return to glory.
For La Salle, Season 76 meant a return to the top of the UAAP mountain after their hated rival reigned for half a decade. Juno Sauler’s first season as head coach saw his Green Archers sweep both meetings with Ateneo, while also overcoming a 0-1 deficit in the UAAP Finals against the University of Santo Tomas to snare the school’s eighth UAAP Championship. With only LA Revilla graduating, the pride of Taft Avenue added Julian Sargent, Terrence Mustre and Abu Tratter to their roster, while welcoming back from injury big man Yutien Andrada.
The school in Green and White was the consensus choice by all UAAP coaches as title favorites, and who could blame them? With the ringing endorsement of former ambassador Eduardo Cojuangco back to fund La Salle like in the '80s and '90s, La Salle is stacked, and former Southwestern University standout Ben Mbala is waiting to join the main roster next season once he finishes his residency.
Both sides entered this Sunday showdown coming from opposite directions. La Salle was upset by Far Eastern University on opening day when Mike Tolomia stepped in for departed MVPs RR Garcia and Terrence Romeo to score 13 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter. The Tamaraws announced to everyone that life goes on in Morayta with the 82-77 win.
On the other hand, the Blue Eagles mauled rookie coach Kenneth Duremdes’ Adamson Falcons in their own opener, 79-57. Ateneo leaned on Kiefer Ravena’s 22 points, as well as 12 points apiece from Chris Newsome and Arvin Tolentino, for the victory. The stage was thus set for the first of two annual meetings between Blue and Green.
Breaking the tie
The anomaly of a UAAP Seniors game between Ateneo and La Salle played before noontime might have resulted in the Araneta Coliseum not being packed to the rafters as these games usually are, but 17,344 paying customers still managed to bring the noise to accentuate the drums of their respective cheering squads.
The TV crew of Eric Tipan and Allan Gregorio stated that entering this contest, both teams had faced each other 72 times, each side winning 36. La Salle’s title from 2013 also meant each side now has eight UAAP titles apiece. While Ateneo looked to stay unbeaten along with National University and University of the East, La Salle simply wanted a win to avoid being in the cellar with Adamson and University of the Philippines.
Early on, the Archers were hitting on all cylinders, particularly the not-so-hefty-lefty anymore Jason Perkins. Not content to stay in the paint, Perkins’ early triple gave the Archers their biggest lead of the game at 13-4. Ravena was tagged early on with two offensive fouls, forcing Perasol to sub Thirdy for his older brother. After one quarter, the Archers led 24-17 behind a 14-4 advantage in points in the paint.
A Newsome jumper followed by a Newsome triple, as well as another triple from Von Pessumal on a fastbreak finally got the Eagles their first lead of the game at 29-28. But Teng, Norbert Torres and Perkins would eventually regain the lead for La Salle at 37-35, until a short Ateneo run earned them a halftime edge at 39-37.
With Van Opstal basically invisible in the first half, Sauler began to establish his center’s presence when the third quarter began. Unfortunately for La Salle, Pessumal’s hot hand stayed hot in the period, and Kiefer Ravena started to join the party. Some pinpoint passing between Elorde and Ravena resulted in a 50-43 Ateneo lead, but Perkins and the Archers fought their way back to end the quarter only trailing 61-59.
Fonzo the hero
Throughout this game, unheralded center Fonzo Gotladera seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. After serving his two-year residency upon transferring from La Salle, it could be argued that Gotladera wanted some form of payback against his old school.
By moving without the ball and trailing his teammates, the 6-foot-5 big man was receiving passes while also converting off offensive rebounds. On the defensive end, it was his responsibility to limit the huge La Salle duo of Van Opstal and Norbert Torres, and he did so with a respectable amount of success.
For all of Pessumal’s hot shooting in the first three quarters, and for Kiefer Ravena’s explosive four triples to help Ateneo pull away in the payoff period, it was Gotladera’s quiet, workman-like effort in the paint that perhaps best personified the Blue Eagles’ game on this date. When Sauler elected to start fouling the center by putting him on the free throw line with three minutes left in the contest, every foul shot he made pushed the Eagles’ lead back up.
As Perasol started subbing in Elorde for Gotladera in order to have a better shooter from the stripe, it basically came down to two former Green Archers that hammered the final nails onto the DLSU coffin. The 97-86 Ateneo win effectively broke the tie between the two schools, sent Ateneo to the top of the standings, and dropped La Salle to the cellar as they wondered what went wrong.
Maybe La Salle just underestimated Gotladera like they did when he spent two years warming their bench. Maybe the Archers just felt that their roster of big men would easily give them this win. Or maybe Gotladera, Ravena, Pessumal, Tolentino, Newsome, Elorde, and the Blue Eagles just wanted this more.
Ravena’s career-high 29 points, 23 of which he dropped in the second half, was supported by Pessumal’s 21 markers, but it was Gotladera’s surprising 17 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks that seemed to come out of nowhere to shock the Green and White gallery.
It is still just two games into this young 77th UAAP season. It is still too early to crown Ateneo champions or declare La Salle as a one-hit wonder.
But on this early afternoon in July, revenge proved mighty sweet for a rebuilding quintet against a bewildered defending champion that remains winless thus far.