|Ateneo's Juami Tiongson (5) celebrates with teammate Nico Salva during Game 2 of the UAAP Season 75 Finals Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena. The Blue Eagles defeated the UST Growling Tigers, 65-62, to win their fifth straight men's basketball championship. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines – Opponents of the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles know that they have to prepare for the squad’s “Big Three” of Greg Slaughter, Kiefer Ravena and Ryan Buenafe – the three players who lead the defending champions in scoring.
But in the biggest of stages – in the UAAP Season 75 Finals – it was not only Ateneo’s “Big Three” who stepped up to lead the Blue Eagles to their fifth straight men’s basketball championship.
In the Blue Eagles’ two victories over the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers, their unheralded veteran players came up with big plays in crunch time as the Tigers’ defense zeroed in on Ravena, Slaughter and Salva.
In Game One, it was forward Ryan Buenafe and point guard Juami Tiongson who combined for a 10-2 run in the fourth quarter that gave the Ateneo enough cushion for an 83-78 victory.
In Game Two, Buenafe went scoreless but picked up 11 rebounds and five assists, while seemingly having a hand in the biggest plays of the game. Meanwhile, Tiongson drilled a big jumper with a little over a minute to go then came up with a clutch steal to help Ateneo get a 65-62 victory.
Reserve center Justin Chua also played well in the third quarter while Slaughter was saddled with foul trouble. Chua and another reserve, Frank Golla, managed to contain UST’s Karim Abdul and render him ineffective even with Slaughter out of the game.
Ateneo coach Norman Black was not surprised that his veterans came through for him in their biggest game of the season.
“I think the number one characteristic of my team is that they are very unselfish,” he said. “Because the team is so unselfish, there are gonna be days where Ryan is gonna shine, Juami is gonna shine, Kiefer or Nico or Greg.”
“That’s the beauty of our team. You never know who is going to step up and be the star for that particular game,” he added.
It was still Salva who copped the Finals Most Valuable Player plum after averaging 19 points in two games against the Tigers, but Black commended the play of his veterans once more.
“Those guys played a huge role in our run to the title this year, and they are really quality players,” he said.
Black made special mention of Buenafe, who won the Finals MVP in Season 73 before sitting out Season 74 due to various issues. He worked his way back to the team in Season 75 and though he struggled at the start of the season, Buenafe once again showed that he brings his A-game in the big stage.
“Ryan is definitely a very unselfish player,” Black said. “He is very talented, but he’s not the type of guy that needs a lot of publicity or needs a lot of touches or shots. He just wants to win.”
He pointed out that Buenafe has never lost a championship series in high school or college. “He’s won seven straight championships, so he knows what it takes to win,” Black said.
Tiongson, meanwhile, was rewarded for his years of patience as he played a big role in this championship run. Despite being part of the Mythical Five in the juniors as an Ateneo Blue Eaglet, Tiongson still toiled at the bench early in his UAAP career as he played behind former Ateneo point guards Jai Reyes and Emman Monfort.
Now that he is the starting point guard of the five-peat champions, Tiongson gave much credit to the two point guards who came before him.
“I was fortunate enough to have Jai Reyes and Emman Monfort constantly giving me advice – Emman on the defensive side, always telling me to give more effort, and Jai always tells me ‘Pakapalan lang ng muka.’ He told me to have the confidence and the bigger cojones,” Tiongson said.
“I’m not probably as talented as the other guards like Jeric Fortuna (UST), RR Garcia (FEU) and Terrence Romeo (FEU), but I have Jai Reyes and Emman Monfort on my side,” he added.
After this season, the Blue Eagles will lose a lot of their veterans – including Slaughter, Salva, Chua, and defensive stalwarts Tonino Gonzaga and Oping Sumalinog.
But Black is confident that the Blue Eagles will still have a strong group of players next season.
“We still have a good nucleus coming back,” he said. “I know Ateneo has some good recruits coming in… They will be hurting a little bit as far as the bigs are concerned, but as far as the smalls and the wingmen, they will be very competitive next year.”