On the Eve of Battle

Nico Salva had a big Game 1. Can he continue playing
well to help Ateneo clinch the title?
(image by Philip Sison/Fabilioh.com)

Ateneo practice.

It's Wednesday, 6:33pm. At this time when most people studying or working at the Ateneo de Manila University are either home already or well on their way, there are about 40 warm bodies still hard at work.

The venue is the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center. All the lights are on. The place is abuzz with activity. HS star Thirdy Ravena is at one corner, shooting hoops with Seniors rookies Isaac Lim and Gboy Babilonia. Some time in the future they're going to be teammates for the Blue & White.

For now, however, the spotlight isn't really on these young 'uns, but on their older brothers.

At center court, assistant coaches Gene Afable, Joe Silva, Sandy Arespacochaga, and Gabby Severino are keenly observing their wards, mindful of what is at stake for the battle that will take place in less than 24 hours.

On one end of the main court, graduating swingman Oping Sumalinog is getting some advice from seasoned mentor Jamike Jarin. Both have been present for Ateneo's recent streak of four championships, and they'd love to add one more to their collection.

Sophomore shooting guard Von Pessumal is all by his lonesome at one of the side courts, practicing those 20-footers he's bound to get if he gets some burn and once guys like Kiefer Ravena and Nico Salva attract the defense.

Kiefer Ravena attracts the UST defense in Game 1.
(image by Yohan Janeo/Fabilioh.com)

Ravena and Salva. These two have been awesome for Ateneo in the postseason so far. Ravena is averaging 20.5ppg, 9.5rpg, and 6.0apg in Ateneo’s 2 two post-elims matches, while Salva is norming 21.0ppg, 3.0rpg, and 1.5apg. They'll need to be at their best against a UST team that should play with a lot of desperation in Game 2.

Another guy who should be at his best is Greg Slaughter. The much ballyhooed 7-footer has severely underperformed in each of the Eagles' three encounters with the Tigers this season. He has scored a total of just 22 points in three encounters, while shooting only 8-of-20 from the field and averaging 3 turnovers per. He'll need to be his Mythical Five-worthy self if Ateneo wants to continue entertaining those 5-peat dreams.

Can Greg Slaughter finally have a breakout game
against the roughhousing UST frontcourt?
(image by Philip Sison/Fabilioh.com)

A man stands up. It’s the man who has steered this program back to relevance, the man chiefly responsible for the past four years of glory.

When Norman Black came to Ateneo as consultant in 2004, it wasn’t a big secret that he was being groomed to be the next head coach for the Loyola five. This, naturally, made a lot of people excited. He’s a known winner – a grand slam coach in the pros. Surely, things would turn for the better for Ateneo.

When he took the helm in 2005, however, things didn’t start very smoothly. In his first official taste of UAAP action, Coach Norman received a shellacking from the De La Salle Green Archers, who were mentored by his former player, Franz Pumaren. He was still able to steer Ateneo to a Final Four berth then, but they got axed, again, by the Archers in the postseason.

The following season, Black, now armed with a season of experience under his belt, was able to guide the Eagles to first place in the elims. They finished with a 10-win and 2-loss record. They marched all the way to the UAAP Season 69 Finals and took a 1-0 series lead against the underdog UST Growling Tigers.

It was supposed to be Coach Norman’s first title run, but another one of his former players, Coach Pido Jarencio, thwarted his plans. Coach Pido, who was a rookie coach at that time, helped the Tigers win Games 2 & 3 for a memorable championship upset.

Needless to say, that memory still stings for Coach Norman Black to this day. He’d love nothing more than to get back at his former ward and end his UAAP coaching days with another Seniors crown. Of course, it also helps that the recent word war/mind games between him and Coach Pido will make a victory all the more satisfying.

Will the Coach Norman Black era end
with another title or in tears?
(image by Philip Sison/Fabilioh.com)

Coach Norman Black sounds off his whistle and everyone slowly gathers around him.

Everybody listens intently, keen on the prize that awaits them should they succeed in closing out this closely-watched championship series. Another UAAP title. Another trophy. An historic 5-peat.

And redemption.

Coach Norman sends his players out to practice a play while several onlookers fill up the bleachers at the sidelines. Alumni Jai Reyes and Bacon Austria are present, taking in the championship aura of a team they helped lead to the promised land a couple of times. I'm sure they’d like to see their little brothers get the job done again.

Ateneo's troop of greenhorns are subbed in for the second unit, and they offer soft resistance against the superior execution of star players Nico Salva and Greg Slaughter. Easy two points.

The Eagles know it's not going to be that easy against the hungry Tigers the following day. The Tigers want the Eagles' scalps. They want their own day in the sun.

But these grizzled veterans of Loyola are hungry, too. Many of them aren't coming back. Slaughter, Salva, Sumalinog, Zags Gonzaga, and Justin Chua are all playing out their eligibility. One final diadem would complete their collegiate careers and solidify their places in Ateneo's sports lore.

The starters muff the next play as Salva misses a turnaround over the much taller Babilonia. Both are products of a terrific San Beda high school hoops program. Salva is the present, and Babilonia is the future. This is the only year they'll share, and a title would make it a year worth reminiscing over and over.

Ryan Buenafe, he of the noticeable swagger, spins through the middle and barrels through the D. He misses the short stab, but a whistle is blown. Foul. He's another guy who needs to be at his best. Since 2006, Ryan has never played in a season where he lost the title. He won two NCAA Juniors crowns with the San Sebastian Staglets in ’06 and ’07, and then went on to help Ateneo annex the UAAP’s Senior titles from 2008-2010. He’s gunning for a personal 6-peat.

Ryan Buenafe is aiming for his sixth straight
 championship in his individual career.
(image by Philip Sison/Fabilioh.com)

The starters are subbed out in the next sequence, replaced by the second stringers. Oping dribbles left past a Justin Chua screen, dribbles between his legs and drains an 18-footer. This is a guy who can probably be the main gunner for many other collegiate programs. Here, however, he's a utility guy. He has played on three of the past four Ateneo championship squads, though, so he's not exactly complaining. Chua is practically in the same boat. Back in the summer of ’08, he was one of the hottest blue chippers out of high school. He was a dominant force in the Tiong Lian league for three years, but he turned into maybe the best back-up big man in college.

In the next play Frank Golla gets the ball within 5 feet of the hole, spins, and then easily puts in the twinner. He had sort of a breakout year in 2010, but it seems he has regressed. Can he flash his once dependable form so the Eagles can rise above UST's tough-playing frontline?

In the next sequence, Gonzaga curls off a pick and dribbles past the defense of Team Glory Be stalwart Chris Newsome. Zags scores. In all probability, Newsome will inherit Zags’s role in the team next season – a dependable wing man who can be called on to be a defensive stopper or a finisher on the break. I’m sure he’d love to play in the UAAP Finals this year, but, alas, he still has to wait for his turn. In contrast, this is the last turn for Zags, who was never  really mentioned in the same breath as his more illustrious Ateneo HS batchmates Austria and Mike Gamboa. Still, despite fitting the underdog mold to a T, Zags has become an integral part of the Ateneo scheme of things. He’s a certified lockdown defender who can run the transition well and hit the occasional perimeter shot. He’s a poster boy for the guys who dream of playing in the UAAP, but were never high school stars. He’s the poster boy for possibilities.

The scrimmage is stopped, and the coaches confer with each other again.

In one corner, Juami Tiongson, who hit some big shots in Game 1, practices his mid-range Js. On the far end, injured back-up center JP Erram also tries his hand at some jumpers. Juami’s performance will be integral in Game 2, but Erram’s won’t, simply because he won’t be playing for the next 6 months (at least). Still, despite the polarity of their situations, both would relish another bonfire celebration.

Ravena is sharing a light moment with his teammates on one end of the main court. He bounces the ball hard on the floor and tries a catch-in-the-air dunk.

One of the most defining moments so far in his young Seniors career was the breakaway jam he made in their second round encounter with UST. Karim Abdul tried to chase him down only to end up in Ravena’s poster. Maybe the Phenom can do it again in Game 2?

Kiefer Ravena welcomes Karim Abdul to his poster.
(screencap from UAAPSports.tv)

Coach Norman blows his whistle again. The short lull is over. Cell phones are put back in bags. Smiles turn serious. The defending champs listen. They heed. They tune in. They commit.

It's already 7:15pm. By now, many people are having dinner. Many people are with their families. Some are probably sleeping already or relaxing with their favorite movie or video game.

Many of the Blue Eagles’ schoolmates are studying for their final exams, writing their term papers, or brushing up for their philosophy and theology orals.

On top of all those things, these guys are here working. They know what hangs in the balance.

Perhaps this is the program's last chance at something as historic as this.

It's not just a title on the line, not just history. It's the dreams, the hopes, of a community that has had to reel from controversies left and right. A title would brighten up the cloudy sky, let the beams come in, and let eagles fly free again.
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