Getting a big lift from reserves Ryan Buenafe and JP Erram, Ateneo overcame a sluggish start to keep its mastery of Far Eastern University 74-71 Saturday night and regain the temporary solo lead in the UAAP Season 75 men’s basketball action at the packed Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
Towering Greg Slaughter finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and five blocks but it was the likes of Buenafe, the Finals MVP in Season 73, and 6-foot-7 Erram, fast-emerging as the team’s enforcer, who helped the Blue Eagles come charging back from an early 12-point hole en route to their fifth straight win and sixth overall against a defeat.
“Ryan played very, very well today,” Ateneo coach Norman Black said. “He orchestrated very well, and played almost like a point guard, the way he delivered the ball to his teammates.”
The Tamaraws, who had another promising start, failed to sustain their charge when it mattered most, and fell to their second defeat in seven starts.
Interestingly, the hard-earned win extended the Blue Eagles’ winning streak over their back-to-back finals nemesis to eight games, since the Tamaraws’ 72-69 victory last July 11, 2010.
[SLIDESHOW: See photos of the game ]
Buenafe collected eight of his 10 points in the second half while Erram, a defensive specialist, added six markers. Kiefer Ravena tallied 10 of his 12 markers via the charity stripe.
Former MVP RR Garcia collected 21 points, 13 coming in the first half but his backcourt buddy Terrence Romeo struggled with just 10. American import Anthony Hargrove added 12 points and 10 boards in a losing cause.
The Tamaraws got off to a strong start, with Garcia’s lay-up off a timely cut underneath giving them a 15-8 edge early. However, the Eagles gamely kept in step behind Slaughter, scoring 10 of the next 16 points to finish the opening period.
Garcia continued to pour it on in the second, coming up with back-to-back buckets as FEU turned up the heat on both ends to post a big 35-23 cushion, courtesy of a split from Hargrove at the 1:51 mark.
With Slaughter having to contend with FEU’s collapsing defense, Ateneo could only come up with nine in the second canto compared to its counterparts’ 16-point output, resulting to an alarming 27-37 deficit at the break.
With Garcia and Romeo driving to the hole uncontested and Hargrove and Arvie Bringas holding their own inside, the Tamaraws outhustled the Eagles with 20-12 advantage in points inside the lane and 25-15 rebounding edge.
“I thought in the first half we did not do a very good job of keeping their perimeter players out of the paint,” Black said. “Romeo and RR were able to wreak havoc on our defense by getting into the lane and breaking us down defensively. At halftime we talked about it, how we had to do a better job with our perimeter defense, how we had to stop gambling so much on steals.”
Conspiring with Juami Tiongson and reserve guard Nico Elorde, Buenafe turned things around with his heady plays, steadying the Eagles offensively, while Erram, ably filling up the shoes of an ineffective Nico Salva, provided the needed defensive spunk to neutralize the FEU frontline.
Trailing 32-42 early in the third, Buenafe ignited his teammates as the Eagles uncorked a 13-4 run capped by an Elorde trey, pulling within 45-46, before the Tamaraws preserved their lead at 53-49 heading into the fourth.
Momentum, however, had clearly shifted to the side of the Blue and White. After Hargrove drained an off-balanced shot starting the payoff period, the Eagles fully asserted their might in the paint, repeatedly pounding the ball inside, and went on a 10-2 run as the Tamaraws started to fade.
A hook shot by Arvie Bringas at the 4:44 mark kept FEU’s fight going but Ateneo, showing composure while camping out at the free throw line, scored nine consecutive unanswered points for a 69-60 spread.
FEU entertained some hope courtesy of back-to-back treys by Bringas and Garcia in the waning moments but Ateneo managed to hold on.
The Blue Eagles will finish in first place after the first round should University of Sto. Tomas lose to Adamson on Sunday. But if the Tigers win, they will get the top spot with Ateneo in second place.