MANILA, Philippines – For fans of the Ateneo de Manila University, Game 2 of the UAAP Season 80 finals must have been the best of times, up until the moment it became the worst of times.
The Blue Eagles could not do anything wrong in the game's early goings, as they put up a 32-point first quarter against the De La Salle Green Archers. They went on to lead by as many as 21 points twice, the last at 49-28 off a split at the line by Anton Asistio with 3:23 left in the first half.
It seemed that everything was going Ateneo's way. Asistio's free throws came off the fourth foul of Ricci Rivero, arguably La Salle's most dynamic player who was just named to the Mythical Five earlier in the day.
Unfortunately for the Blue and White faithful at the Araneta Coliseum, that was when the tide turned in La Salle's favor. The Green Archers ended the first half on a stirring 14-2 run, which included an emphatic slam dunk by Ben Mbala that clearly energized La Salle.
By the fourth quarter, the shift in momentum was complete. La Salle outscored Ateneo 26-8, and the blue side of the coliseum was mired in anxiety as what seemed like a blowout game in its favor turned into a tough 92-83 loss – one that sent the best-of-three finals to a deciding Game 3.
"You guys saw our best, and at the same time our worst game, in one single game against La Salle," Ateneo skipper Mike Nieto said wryly after the setback.
The Blue Eagles were well aware of the reasons for their defeat. They admitted to being quite complacent after building such a big lead, and drifting away from what worked for them in the first half.
"Siguro we just didn't follow the system in the second half," said Nieto. "We were more individual than teamwork during the second half."
"We just scored eight points in the third quarter," he added. "That's the ball game for us."
His twin brother, Matt, said the problems began on the defensive end. The Blue Eagles found themselves repeatedly turning the ball over against La Salle's pressure defense, and they were almost always slow defending the transition.
"We weren't focusing on our defense in the second half," said Matt. "Darating rin 'yung offense, but we really have to focus on our defense."
Thirdy Ravena, who led the team with 20 points but also had seven turnovers, also noted that Ateneo simply did not match La Salle's intensity when the Green Archers started to make their run.
"They had a run, and they had a couple of nice plays that really motivated them to play harder, especially on defense," Ravena observed. "We have to realize that when they make those runs, we have to play at the same level, or even more."
"We can't just keep on doing what we're doing, with them making that run," he added.
The Blue Eagles gave full credit to La Salle for the victory – the defending champions, after all, erased a 21-point deficit then stood firm in the fourth quarter to deny them a comeback victory.
Yet they are also aware that had they only done what they were supposed to do, had they only stuck to their game plan, they could very well have been celebrating a championship on Wednesday.
"Kami talaga 'yung may problema," said Matt. "Kami 'yung nagpabaya sa sarili namin."
"Nawala 'yung composure namin, nawala 'yung pag-stick namin sa game plan, binale-wala lang namin kasi akala namin kaya namin pag hindi namin sinundan 'yung system. So the blame is on us."
The good thing for Ateneo, however, is that the Blue Eagles won Game 1. Thus, the series is only tied at one game apiece, and they have another chance to end a five-year championship drought on Sunday, when they take on La Salle in the winner-takes-all Game 3.
They are putting the heartbreaking loss to Game 2 behind them, said "Big Mike," and instead pouring their collective energy in the deciding game.
"It's another opportunity for us to showcase our talent, lalo na it's a do-or-die game for both of us, Ateneo and La Salle," said Nieto. "'Yung mananalo diyan, 'yung mas gustong makuha 'yung championship."
"We promise you guys that we'll fight, and we'll get that on Sunday," he guaranteed.
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