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Mr. Bail Out

(Note: Tomorrow, we will launch our annual Philippine Star Sports Christmas Contest in this column. Watch for it.)

It’s difficult to single out one hero for Ateneo in the Blue Eagles’ title run in the UAAP men’s basketball championships this season. Matt Nieto suffered a cut over his left eye in the second quarter of Game 1 of the Finals against La Salle but shrugged it off to finish the contest. Raffy Verano threw up an off-balance Hail Mary scoop shot that found the bottom of the net in a daring drive off Ben Mbala to stop a critical Archers 7-0 surge in the fourth period of the same contest. 

Aaron Black erupted for 15 points, including eight in the payoff period, to almost singlehandedly battle La Salle in Game 2. Anton Asistio knocked down 9-of-21 triples in the three-gam e Finals. Mike Nieto fired 11 straight points in Game 1 to stave off the Archers. Graduating center Chiz Ikeh reserved his best for last as he compiled 12 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots in a fierce duel with Mbala in Game 3. Jolo Mendoza drained a crucial three in the clincher. Gian Mamuyac went in and out of Game 3 like a yo-yo as coach Tab Baldwin put him in on defense and sat him down on offense. Yet at the height of La Salle’s uprising, he delivered a huge three.

Thirdy Ravena was at the forefront of the Eagles attack the entire Finals, leading Ateneo in scoring in every game. He was the leader of the pack, the man who made things happen on a consistent basis. In Game 3, Ravena had 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block. In Game 2, he collected 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal. In Game 1, Ravena compiled 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. No doubt, he has succeeded in essaying his older brother Kiefer’s role with the Eagles. Ravena worked hard to polish his game, silencing doubters who thought he could never break out of his brother’s shadow. 

But if you had to choose one man to dub Mr. Bail Out, Isaac Go’s the hands-down pick. The 6-7 center isn’t too gifted athletically and lumbers around the court like he’s dragged down by his weight. But looks are deceiving. Go is far from sloppy and he’s exceptionally smart. He deftly maneuvers for inside position and knows how to avoid box-outs. Go has developed a nifty jumphook from close range and can hit from the perimeter, too. He may not be Baldwin’s Go-to guy because Ravena is but if Ateneo needs one shot to win the game, Go is always an option. Mr. Bail Out has Baldwin’s Go-signal.

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In Game 3, the Eagles raced to an 80-70 lead with four minutes left. But slowly, La Salle came back and unloaded a 10-2 blast that cut the gap to two, 82-80, with 48.9 seconds to go. Ravena drove in, drew La Salle’s interior defense and found Go waiting from beyond the arc. Kib Montalbo challenged Go’s shot but the trajectory went beyond his arm. Go’s triple found the mark with 24.7 ticks remaining to make it 85-80. Three free throws from Ateneo and two triples from La Salle closed out the scoring as the Eagles held on to win, 88-86.

It wasn’t a spectacular night for Go who finished with seven points and two rebounds. But when Go was counted on to hit the big shot, he never backed off and buried his only triple attempt. In Ateneo’s do-or-die semifinal duel against FEU, it was also Go who bailed out the Eagles with a late three to send it into overtime and in extension, sank a basket sitting on the floor to ice the contest. 

When Baldwin moved to Ateneo, he made sure the Eagles on the team would respond to his challenge of unselfishness. Some quarters said he could’ve fought to keep the likes of C. J. Perez, Arvin Tolentino, Hubert Cani, Roy Doliguez and Koko Pingoy on the roster but didn’t – probably because he felt Ateneo’s future lay in building a foundation of role players, not superstars. 

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La Salle coach Aldin Ayo was impressed by the Eagles’ character. “Take Mamuyac,” he said. “Coach Tab brings him in for defense and when it’s time for offense, he signals to be replaced. That’s an indication of a player who knows his role, who’ll sacrifice minutes to do what the coach wants.” It’s the formula that Baldwin used to bring Ateneo back to the UAAP throne after a five-year absence. The absence of superstars and the emergence of 12 role players battling together like a band of brothers, ready to answer the call to arms at any moment, made the difference. 

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