My thoughts on yesterday's Blue Eagles 74-71 win over FEU.
Depending on your point of view, Ateneo is either a team without stars or a team full of them. I have an Ateneo T-shirt from 2003, bought from rabid Ateneo fan Noel Narciso. He released it after Larry Fonacier's season-ending injury that year. It has his number 14 in the front and the words "where one has fallen, another shall rise" on the back. Last Saturday this Ateneo team seemed to embody that ethic. Kiefer Ravena was not his usual self, held to a solitary field goal. Nico Salva was ineffective and got benched. And yet with the Blue Eagles, being a role player is something to be celebrated, not tolerated. Everyone knows they will have a chance to shine somewhere down the road. Ateneo's bench scoring won the day, and turned what looked like a close game into a foregone conclusion with minutes to play. Juami Tiongson, Nico Elorde, JP Erram and Ryan Buenafe made the Eagles fans forget about the struggles of their two starters time and time again.
Norman Black's Twin Towers delivered. Black brought in JP Erram alongside Greg Slaughter for the second half and the Tams could not cope. The double whammy of Slaughter's elegant offense (he finished with seventeen points) and Erram's lock-down defense made life miserable for FEU. It forced the Tams to snipe from outside, since the shaded area had been turned into a no-fly zone in the forth quarter, or at the very least, a fly-at-your-own-risk zone. Late treys by Arvie Bringas, RR Garcia, and Mike Tolomia were mere window-dressing for the Tams.
Ryan Buenafe has lifted his draft stock. When the big fellow sat out last season I wondered how PBA scouts would think. Would they look askance and let his draft value plummet? Especially since this season he has been mostly a supporting act? After his showing against FEU, the answer might be no. Black stuck with Ryan through almost the entire second half and, and the ex-Staglet trotted out a vintage performance. He unveiled his post moves with two neat baskets in the third quarter. Then showed his otherworldly hoops IQ with an offload to Slaughter in the fourth quarter that Greg slammed home to give Ateneo a 58-57 lead. Buenafe displayed more smarts later on when, with the Eagles leading 68-60, he put the brakes on a fast break and elected instead to bleed precious seconds off the clock. Buenafe may be drafted next year higher than some think. His combination of size, touch, and brains will be hard to ignore.
In an unpredictable first round, Ateneo still looks like the team to beat. National University has proven to be a dangerous but flawed team. DLSU, even with Jeron Teng, is a work in progress. Far Eastern is still a threat but don't let the 3-point margin fool you: Ateneo were the far better club yesterday. The Eagles handled adversity with a composure bred from years of championship experience. Black made great adjustments after his team was held to just 27 in the first half. More admirably, Ateneo, under duress, did what few teams do in the crucible of pressure; they insisted on playing unselfish Basketball. Ravena, Salva, Buenafe, and Slaughter all made assists in the fourth quarter. That one first-round blemish to the Growling Tigers is looking more and more like an aberration. A likely UST win over Adamson on Sunday will give the Tigers the top spot, but everyone knows that the road to the Season 75 crown passes through Loyola.
You can follow Bob Guerrero on Twitter @bhobg333.