On the Trail of Champions: Inalienable Truths

Kris Porter and the Eaglets ran into a tough UST five.
(image by Jessie F. Ramos)

In basketball, there are certain things that hold true in every game – certain inalienable truths that apply across all teams and levels of play. Four of those truths contributed to the outcome of the Eaglets’ last game in the first round of Season 74.

Truth #1: If a 5-win,1-loss team allows a 2-win, 3-loss team to stick too close for too long, the former is bound to pay for it.

UST wasn’t exactly supposed to be a walk-in-the-park, but this edition of the Tiger Cubs is a far cry from years past. They don’t have a player in the same mold as recent graduates like Kyle Neypes, Cedrick Labing-isa, JP Sarcia or Kevin Ferrer, all of which are in the UAAP Seniors division this season.

After garnering just two wins, and at the expense of cellar-dwellers UE and UPIS at that, nobody really gave the España quintet much of a chance against the streaking Eaglets, who were riding high on a 5-game win streak.

Sure, there were dangerous guys that needed to be checked like Jervy Cruz-ish Neil Ilarde and spitfire Nicko Bahia, but by-and-large the Eaglets have been playing at a higher level than the Cubs.

Judging from the opening quarter, however, nobody watching would’ve guessed that.

The teams were trading baskets, which was good for UST and bad for Ateneo. The Eaglets were able to force some stops, but they also committed some errors that prevented them from erecting a sizeable gap. The 1st period ended, 12-10, with Ateneo holding fort.

It was in the 2nd stanza when the Blue & White fans (composed of HS students, young and younger alumni, and some current and former Seniors players) got a taste of how good this team could be.

Almost as soon as UST’s Angel Latoreno (yes, he’s the little bro of former Tiger Melchor Latoreno) tied the game with a put-back, the Eaglets went on a 6-0 run behind the exploits of Aaron Black, Tomas Ramos, and Lambert Tenorio. That particular spurt was sparked by Ateneo being able to force the Cubs into some turnovers, and consequently converting them successfully. Timeout UST.

Ilarde and shooter Aflred Cubilla (you’ll see that name again later) hit a deuce and a trey respectively to trim the lead before Tenorio buried his own three to restore some distance. The Ateneo press went to work a few moments after, with a slew of steals produced, but only a single transition basket courtesy of junior guard Anton Asistio. The teams traded blows again before coach Joe Silva sued for time with 1:42 left in the half and the Loyolans on top, 25-21. One could see the frustration in coach Silva’s face – they were playing just well enough to lead, but silly errors kept the Cubs alive.

Coach Joe Silva yells out instructions to his wards.
(image by Jessie F. Ramos)
Off the timeout, it seemed things would quickly get better as big man Kris Porter scored on a nice spin move right before Tenorio hit his own long jumper. The lead stood at 8, the highest it has been. It looked like the teams would head to the lockers with that point difference intact until Latoreno hit an improbable jumper that cut down the gap to just 6 at the half.

One could sense the impatience in the crowd. When would the Eagles blow the game wide open?

They never would. In fact, that 6-point advantage would disappear faster than expected. And the culprit? The second inalienable truth.

Truth #2: Size, especially when it comes to rebounding, matters.

There is hardly any team in the Juniors division that can match-up with our frontline in terms of sheer size. Porter, Ramos, Bolek Vitangcol and Gabe Capacio combine to form an imposing frontcourt quartet that has height, heft and speed.

But if there’s any squad that could go pound-for-pound with the Eaglets in size, it was the Tiger Cubs.

One can’t be faulted for mistaking the Cubs for a Seniors team, what with the battalion of gigantors they have in tow. There are at least 4 guys in the team who are 6’3” or taller – Ilarde, Latoreno, Jorem Soriano, Paolo Florentin – and save for Soriano, all those guys are almost double the heft of someone like Ramos. It’s the perfect counterpoint to one of Ateneo’s foremost strengths.

Ateneo's Jed Austria is dwarfed by two of UST's giants:
Paolo Florentin and Jorem Soriano.
(image by Jessie F. Ramos)
And UST exploited it to the hilt. The Cubs outrebounded the Eaglets 55-34 in total, which was bad enough, but the implications were made worse by the fact that UST grabbed 27 of those boards on the offensive glass. That’s 27 second chances at the basket – 27 times the Blue & White could’ve gone in transition or set up their own plays. All in all, the Black & Gold just had 4 outright put-backs converted, but there were also several other baskets made after the shot clock was reset because of great offensive rebounding.

In stark contrast to the game against the UE Pages, the Eaglets found themselves on the receiving end of a size disadvantage – something that helped UST retake the lead in the 2nd half.

After Ramos split his charities to open the 3rd quarter scoring, Latoreno grabbed another of his EIGHT offensive rebounds and put it back in. That started a 9-0 blast from España that gave UST a slim 2-point advantage with 6:48 to go in the period. Coach Silva called time and sternly reminded his wards that UST won’t just hand them the win. They’d have to take it.

But UST just wouldn’t budge. They held on to the lead until the 3rd quarter buzzer sounded with them on top, 40-38. We would have our chances in the 4th, until another Achilles heel reared its ugly head.

Truth #3: Especially in a close game, you have to hit your free-throws.

11. That’s the number of times the Eaglets trooped to the stripe in the last period.

6. That’s how many times the Eaglets made good on their charities.

2. Remember that number.

Amusingly enough, despite the atrocious free-throw shooting, which has been a staple of the Eaglets’ game since their first match, Ateneo was still leading by 4 with about a minute to go. That was thanks to the heady playmaking of Mark Gamboa, who fed Porter under the basket twice for and-one opportunities, and his steady shot from the line – he made all 4 of his freebies.

Mark Gamboa's playmaking prowess handed Ateneo
the lead late in the game.
(image by Jessie F. Ramos)
UST, though, would cut into that lead. With under a minute to go the Cubs missed a shot, but yet another offensive board gave them an extra opportunity. And Bahia would seize that opportunity. With the shot-clock winding down, Bahia hit a high-arcing triple from the left quarter-court that cut Ateneo’s lead to a lonely point.

Ateneo muffed their own possession and UST got the ball back. Alvin Ungria, who made two triples already, missed on a jumper, but, again, UST got the offensive rebound. It was a good thing Gamboa got his hands in and he forced a jump ball.

The result of the tip was Porter tapping the rock out of bounds with 3 seconds left.

Timeout UST. Here’s where the last inalienable truth comes in.

Truth #4: During an inbounds play with 3.0 ticks left, the most important guy to defend is the inbounder.

UST’s Alfred Cubilla is a designated shooter. In the Cubs’ previous game against the FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws, he was hoisting threes left and right, and he missed all of them. His personal cold spell continued in this game where he shot a mere 1-of-8 from beyond the arc.

And then this happened:

Cubilla inbounded the ball from the baseline to UST’s diminutive PG, Ivan Lazaro, who immediately got harassed by two Ateneo defenders. It was clear he couldn’t get a shot off, but that also left Cubilla wide open at the right elbow for a potential game-winner.

Lazaro found his teammate, then Cubilla let it fly.

Once the season is done, I’m pretty sure Ateneo will look back on this game and view it as a turning point, but whether it’s a turn for the better or for the worse is something only time will tell.

The unforced errors, the rebounds they couldn’t get to, the free-throws they couldn’t hit – all these will be fodder for maturity. Truths revealed. Lessons learned. Challenge accepted. This unforeseen culmination to round one stings, but it should ignite the fire in the Eaglets to prove themselves once again.

No smiles here.
(image by Jessie F. Ramos)
For now, however, they’ll remember how the net swished as that final shot went in.

Still, One BIG Fight!

UST 54 – Bahia 13, Ungria 11, Latoreno 8, Cubilla 6, Ilarde 6, Mayor 4, Lazaro 4, Lo 2, Soriano 0, Florentin 0, Pelias 0
AHS 52 – Porter 15, Tenorio 9, Gamboa 8, Ramos 5, Asistio 5, Asuncion 3, Ravena 2, Black 2, Lim 2, Austria 1, Capacio 0, Vitangcol 0, Puno 0
QS: 10-12, 23-29, 40-38, 54-52
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