NU beats Ateneo for first Finals appearance since 1970
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Smart Araneta Coliseum rocked and rumbled with the stomps and yells of loud and anxious fans, cheering, even praying, for their respective teams. But one man of all people, coach Eric Altamirano, remained steady, calm and composed despite the amount of pressure threatening to break him.
His team, the National University Bulldogs, were up by a precarious two points with 9.3 seconds left in the game. They have never been in the Finals since 1970.
They are on the brink of redeeming themselves from last year's blunder when, as top seed holding a twice to beat edge, they were toppled by fourth seed UST and fell short of making the Finals yet again. The pressure was on to finally make it.
But despite all of that plus a 20-minute power interruption, the composed Altamirano drew up one last defensive play that fittingly delivered his team through as big man Alfred Aroga swatted away a Kiefer Ravena lay-up attempt to end their 4-decade Finals drought with a 65-63 escape on Wednesday, October 1 in the men's basketball tournament of UAAP Season 77.
"Finally, we were able to break our walls of Jericho," Altamirano said, referring to the Bible story. "It took us 3 times to try to get into the Finals and we're able to make it."
NU became only the second fourth seeded team in the UAAP, next to UST, to overcome a twice to beat disadvantage and make the Finals.
"When you look back 2 or 3 weeks ago this (making the Finals) seemed far-fetched," Altamirano added. "They (team) stayed focus, kept on fighting, they stayed together. I have to give it to the boys."
Once the game resumed when the dimmed arena lights regained full brightness, Ateneo had one 9.3-second final possession to try and force overtime or win the game.
With the defense scrambling, the ball found its way to Ravena's hands, who drove for a lay-up he tried to roll off his fingers. But Aroga, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds to his name, was there to stop this season's MVP's attempt to save the day.
"I think in that last play it (lull) was favorable for us because we were defending," said Altamirano, whose team made it to the Final Four by going through the wringer against an equally tough University of the East.
"We knew where they were going so we were able to stop it."
More than completing the game-sealing defensive stop, Aroga also had a hand at helping guard Gelo Alolino deliver the marginal free throws for the final tally.
With Alolino committing a couple of turnovers and seemingly frustrated, Aroga pulled him aside during a dead ball in the third and gave him a major pep talk.
"He told me, 'You're the best point guard this season. You should know that. You're our leader'," Alolino shared what Aroga told him.
It worked right away as Alolino banked a three-pointer that squashed Ateneo's rally, albeit momentarily. He later dropped 7 of his total 12 points in the final frame, including NU's last 5 points of the contest.
He tied the game for the Bulldogs with 2:01 to go via a gutsy triple, 63-63, before sinking two pressure-packed, game-clinching charities with 9.3 ticks on the clock.
"Before may crucial baskets na hindi ko na-shoot pero ngayon na-deliver ko," Alolino added. (Before I couldn't shoot the crucial baskets but now I was able to deliver.)
Putting up their defensive walls from the very start up until the final second of the game, a superstar-less NU relied heavily on team play and sheer effort on defense to pull through every game this season.
Against an offensive juggernaut in Ateneo, whom NU has swept 4-0 this year after this win, their defense was highlighted even more.
The Eagles figured in a slow start against NU's stingy defense which the Bulldogs exploited to lead by as much as 12, 25-13, midway in the second frame.
However Ateneo, who were 9-0 this season when leading after 3 quarters, per UAAP Chief Statistician Pong Ducanes, came out firing in the third period, outscoring NU by 20-14 as they began hitting their outside shots. They took a slim 47-46 lead over NU entering the fourth. NU was 0-5 this season when trailing after 3 quarters, also per Ducanes.
It was a back and forth affair in the fourth as Ravena made difficult shot after difficult shot, with the help of crucial baskets from his teammates, to steady his team but it wasn't enough for them to return to the Finals after completing the 5-peat in 2012.
Chris Newsome, who kept Ateneo afloat during a cold-shooting first half (15 points on 7-of-9 shooting by halftime), led all Eagles with 22 points and 6 rebounds.
Ravena came out flat with two-of-10 shooting clip for just 5 points at the half but managed to break down NU's focused and intense defensive pressure on him, opting to dish to his teammates first, to end up with 18 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Team captain Glenn Khobuntin added 11 markers and 8 boards for NU who last won a UAAP men's basketball title in 1954.
"I think what happened last year was really to build our character," Altamirano recalled their meltdown against UST in the Final Four last year. "If you come to think of it, what happened made us tougher."
The still calm though visibly relieved coach added his team will continue to play hard defense for the entire Finals series no matter who they face. They intend to complete their romp into history.
"Nandito na kami. Itutuloy tuloy na namin." (We're already here. We'll go all the way.)
The Bulldogs will await the winner between FEU and defending champions La Salle as the best-of-3 Finals is slated to begin on Saturday, October 4.
NU (65): Aroga 14, Alolino 12, Khobuntin 11, Rosario 9, Javelona 8, Neypes 4, Diputado 3, Alejandro 2, Perez 2, Betayene 0, Atangan 0.
Ateneo (63): Newsome 22, K. Ravena 18, Elorde 8, Pessumal 8, Babilonia 4, V. Tolentino 2, Gotladera 1, Apacible 0, Capacio 0, A. Tolentino 0.
Quarter scores: 12-8, 32-27, 46-47, 65-63.