A battle of wills

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Jude P. Roque

Jude P. Roque

We predicted a tight contest between the Ateneo Blue Eagles and Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws in Game 1 of their University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 79 semis match up. Even when Ateneo had already defeated FEU twice this season, we knew the defending champions Tamaraws were not going to hand the finals seat on a silver platter.

The Tams pulled the rug from under the Eagles after falling behind by as many as ten points in the final canto to escape with the 62-61 squeaker, and force a rubber match for the second finals berth for the right to challenge the De La Salle Green Archers in the best-of-three championship series. But in many ways, FEU and Ateneo are very evenly matched, as both squads don’t really have big name stars. They rely mostly on team play and hard work, especially on the defensive end. True enough, we witnessed in Game 1 a highly defensive combat, with very little success in the transition game for both teams. Imagine a combined six points in the fast-break?It surely wasn’t the most exciting game to watch. But the will and determination of both camps were in full display last Saturday.

You can’t ask for more from both game strategists—Tab Baldwin of Ateneo and Nash Racela of FEU. Because of the clear lack of offensive firepower, both coaches focused on defense the entire season to become the top two defensive teams in the league. Both schools suffered heavy personnel losses from last season. Ateneo lost long-time superstar Kiefer Ravena to graduation, along with Von Pessumal and Fonzo Gotladera. Gone also are 2014 UAAP top rookie Arvin Tolentino and Jerie Pingoy. But even worse was the exodus of FEU’s six main guns that include Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia and RR Pogoy—the Big 3 in the Tams’ conquest of UAAP Season 78. Both rosters are teeming with rookies.

The first half of Game 1 saw a stiff battle that ended with just a three-point lead for FEU. But the Eagles buckled down to work in the third quarter as seven cagers shared the scoring pie, with four of them contributing four points each. Through crisp passing, they found holes in the Tams’ zone defenses. They also outhustled their opponents off the boards, and posted seven second-chance points and the same number of turnover points. More importantly, Ateneo’s offense got a shot in the arm in that quarter to attain an impressive 46.7% field goal percentage as opposed to FEU’s measly 38.5%.

But in the payoff period, the tables were turned after the Tams slowly chopped down a ten-point deficit by imposing their will inside the paint with 14 markers against the four of Ateneo. They outrebounded the Eagles in this quarter, 19-8, including seven offensive caroms. They also shot better this time, 43.7% to Ateneo’s 31.8%. Monbert Arong sizzled for nine of his 13 points in the final canto, and Raymar Jose and Prince Orizu had seven apiece to lead FEU’s strong finishing kick. On the other hand, Ateneo’s lone bright spot in the fourth was Aaron Black, who scored seven of his team-high 11 points. Thirdy Ravena had six markers in the fourth quarter but only because of back-to-back treys in the last few seconds of the contest when Ateneo was desperately trying to salvage the game. Jose, FEU’s new Mac Belo, had a monster performance of 23 boards and 20 markers. The game had nine deadlocks and seven lead changes. What was glaring though was FEU’s 50-40 edge in rebounding.

The do-or-die Game 2 won’t be much of a chess match between the two brilliant tacticians. Perhaps we’ll see a few new plays but it will be mostly dribble-drive for both troops. Maybe some new defensive schemes too. But Game 2 will be decided by the players. It’s what coaches call a “player’s game.” Strategies and systems will take a backseat. It will be the players’ show – a battle of wills. In a balanced duel, heart and determination will spell the difference.

And the grand reward that awaits the victors – facing the mighty Green Archers in the finals.

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