SEPTEMBER 27, 2008
(STAR) THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco - The Ateneo community is joyously celebrating the end of a six-year championship drought. It was particularly sweet for head coach Norman Black and Chris Tiu, who had endured criticism and frustration for four years, mostly at the hands of De La Salle. This time around, the shoe was on the other foot.

As expected, the defending champion Green Archers came out smoking, totally flustering the Blue Eagles, and sending fear into the Ateneo faithful. Two quick fouls on Most Valuable Player Rabeh Al-Hussaini added to the paranoia.

But the bench delivered mightily soon after. Not counting a desperate buzzer-beating attempt, Jobe Nkemakolam knocked in four shots to help construct a 15-point Ateneo lead. In the second half, La Salle struck again, bucking the controversial ejection of Rico Maierhofer for allegedly flipping a dirty finger at Al-Hussaini to spear in five three-pointers in the third period to slash the deficit to three.

Video review, even with ABS-CBN’s state-of-the-art magnifying equipment, proved inconclusive.

So what did it for Ateneo? A look back at the season will reveal a mix of tangibles and intangibles did the job.

Rebounding. No two ways about it, Ateneo was solid off the boards. The dominance kept the Green Archers from running as much as they wanted, and getting second shots in the series. The Green Archers’ dependence on the outside shot also made it easier for the Blue Eagles to reign in the boards.

Defense. The bigs of DLSU were constantly frustrated by the interior defense and help defense of the AdMU. Finals MVP Nonoy Baclao’s seven blocks in Game One and five in Game Two made it almost impossible for the champions to penetrate, and added to their aggravation.

Consistency. Although they had difficulty breaking La Salle’s bench initially, Ateneo found ways to advance the ball along the sideline, or bring a big man up the middle to release the ball to. Also, Ateneo was consistent in their defense, and made the free throws when it mattered. More importantly, save for the third quarter of Game Two, they showed the consistent toughness that eventually repulsed De La Salle.

Bench Contribution. Nkemakolam, Eric Salamat and Bacon Austria all chipped in at vital points of the series. When DLSU’s bench was falling short or tightening up on defense, Ateneo’s depth proved a big difference. When Al-Hussaini sat down for almost the entire first half of Game Two, yet Ateneo built a 15-point lead.

In summary, the Blue Eagles’ depth and defense defused De La Salle’s explosiveness. De La Salle only needed better execution, especially from the subs, to change the outcome.

Looking ahead, four of the five players on the floor at the end of the game for Ateneo – Al-Hussaini, Baclao, Rookie of the Year Ryan Buenafe and Jai Reyes – will be back next year. There are reports that San Sebastian Staglet behemoth Arvie Bringas (like Buenafe before him, also heavily recruited) will join the Blue Eagles. Add to this the pair of Fil-Am Dichavez brothers who will add more athleticism to Ateneo. One of them currently plays for Team B, while the younger one is finishing his tenure with Benedictine International School, which produced All-Rookie Team member Clark Bautista of UST.

But don’t cry any tears for De La Salle. The Green Archers are a proud team with a history of excellence. It seems logical that Franz Pumaren will recruit heavily from the extremely tall Nokia-Philippine Youth Team, which he also handled. Initial reports indicate that he may end up with four members of the team.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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