With its offense going haywire in the second half, Ateneo leaned on its defense and some key baskets down the stretch to defeat archrival La Salle 62-51, and clinch its first men’s basketball crown since 2002.
The first half looked pretty much like Game One, where La Salle had an early lead, only to have Ateneo come storming back.
Unlike Game One, however, newly-crowned MVP Rabeh al-Hussaini wasn’t a factor in the first half, as he got saddled with early foul trouble. Having earned two fouls, Ateneo coach Norman Black opted to pull Rabeh out for the rest of the first half.
And then King Eagle Chris Tiu took over. Tiu, who wasn’t a factor in Game One, scored 13 points in the first half, to power the Ateneo attack. Jobe Nkemekolam and Baldos also contributed key baskets in the Ateneo surge, which led to a 15-point lead at the end of the first half.
It was clear, however, that any celebration at that point was very premature, as La Salle would soon demonstrate.
It wasn’t the prettiest game down the stretch, as Ateneo’s offense spluttered in the third quarter, as La Salle outscored Ateneo 21-9 to move to within 3 points of the lead.
However, in the middle of the third quarter, Rico Maierhofer got himself ejected, courtesy of technical fouls, both for trash talking. Maierhofer, who had gotten a technical in the first half for jawing at the Ateneo team, was caught flashing his right middle finger at al-Hussaini, earning him his second technical and automatic ejection. While it wasn’t clear from the video whether Rico was dissing al-Hussaini, it was clear that he was at least facing Rabeh, and not motioning to teammate JV Casio, as he claimed in his explanation to the La Salle student commentator.
Without Maierhofer, the offensive burden fell on JV Casio’s shoulders. Unfortunately, as early as the third quarter, Casio earned his fourth foul, coming off a monster 3-pointer.
In the fourth quarter, it was either that both teams’ defense was on overdrive, or both teams simply let the pressure get to them. Neither team scored any field goal until there was less than 5 minutes left, although Chris Tiu, having been fouled taking a three, made all three foul shots to give Ateneo a 6-point cushion. Then, Walsham broke La Salle’s scoring drought by putting in a much-needed basket at the 3:50 mark, but the lead was still four at that point.
What sealed La Salle’s fate was that with 2:43 to go, JV Casio, playing in his last UAAP game, got his fifth foul, an offensive foul for warding off Ateneo guard Jai Reyes with his arm.
Without Maierhofer and Casio, La Salle’s two foundations, the Archers fell prey to the much-vaunted Ateneo defense, and only managed one basket the rest of the way. Top defensive player Nonoy Baclao, broke the offensive drought for Ateneo with a layup at the 2:20 mark. Reyes chipped in a basket at 1:19, along with 3-4 foul shots, to push the lead back to double digits. And that’s how the game ended.
In the end, Ateneo managed to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and clinched its first men’s basketball crown since 2002.
It was a heady feeling, and, while I watched the game at home, I’m pretty sure people in the high school, and the grade school, and especially those watching the game live, were whooping it up, savouring the sweet taste of victory.
What’s promising is that with the only players graduating from the team being Tiu and guard Yuri Escueta, it’s very possible that Ateneo can make it a back-to-back championship.On the La Salle side, I’m not sure if coach Franz Pumaren will put the game under protest because of Maierhofer’s finger, though I don’t think it’s going to prosper. In the bigger picture, both Casio and Maierhofer will be gone, and Pumaren’s going to have his work cut out for next season, although he does have a number of promising players. The question is whether he will manage to get them to jell in time for next season. If he does, we’ll probably see a repeat of this season, which can only delight the fans of one of the biggest rivalries in Philippine basketball.
Correction: Maierhofer still has one more year, although in his tantrum after the game, he's apparently thinking about it. I'm sure, however, when his head is cooler, he will want to get back at his tormentors.