MANILA, Philippines – Isaac Go had worked too hard to let something so trivial as a bloody nose keep him from playing in the most crucial stretch of their UAAP Season 79 Final 4 game against the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws.
Early in the overtime period of the do-or-die semifinals game between the Blue Eagles and the Tamaraws, the Ateneo big man found himself down on the floor, bleeding profusely from a cut at the bridge of his nose, a victim of an inadvertent elbow from FEU center Prince Orizu.
He had to be helped back to the bench, clearly shaken up. In his absence the Blue Eagles trailed by one point, 67-68, and flubbed a chance to push ahead when his substitute, Chibueze Ikeh, bobbled the ball and was called for a travel.
In all, Go sat down for only 20 seconds of game action. He made an immediate impact upon his return, corralling an offensive board off a miss by Matt Nieto and scoring the go-ahead shot with 1:31 left to play, 69-68.
"At that point in the game," Go later said, "it was winning time. When the game's on the line, you have to play."
Go went on to make a crucial defensive play in the final seconds, running hard down the court after a turnover by Thirdy Ravena to ensure that he will be able to bother FEU's last shot. His presence was enough to deter Ron Dennison, whose lay-up came half a second too late for the Tamaraws.
"You can't let injuries or cramps stop you," said Go. "It's the type of drive that great players try to have. Let's say, it's overtime, you get cramps? You throw that all away because you know that coach wants you on the floor."
After finishing with 12 points, 14 rebounds, and one bloody nose, Go was hailed as the hero of the game by his teammates and the Ateneo community, who chanted his name at the Big Dome while celebrating their first Finals appearance in four seasons.
Ateneo will face arch-rivals De La Salle University in the best-of-three championship series.
Afterward, Go and even Ateneo head coach Tab Badwin made light of his bloody nose. "I just overreacted to the blood coming out," said Go. "It looks worse than what it really was."
"Oh, he was just tired, the blood was all fake," Baldwin said in jest.
Yet Baldwin also credited Go for showing remarkable toughness especially in such a crucial stretch of the game. "They players make those decisions," he said. "I went over to him, and I asked if (his nose) was broken. The doctor said it's not broken."
"I said, 'get back out there.' He said let me get the bleeding stopped, and I'll be right there. That's all," he related.
Go's effort against the Tamaraws in the Final 4 is just the latest chapter of what he says has been an "incredible" journey. Averaging less than six minutes in Season 78, and serving primarily as a back-up in the first round of Season 79, Go has been Ateneo's best big man in the second round of the tournament, and his finest games coincided with the Blue Eagles' six-game winning streak towards the end of the eliminations.
It is clear that Go has come a long way, not just from the start of the season, but even from the very beginning of their preparations when Baldwin referred to him as a "big fat kid."
"When I joined the organization, I looked around and said: What do we have for big men?" Baldwin said. He was pointed to Ikeh and G-Boy Babilonia, and "nobody said anything about Isaac."
"I said, 'What about the big fat kid over there?'" referring to Go.
The answer he got was blunt – Go barely played in Season 78 and clearly lacked experience. Yet Baldwin saw the promise and potential in Go, saw the skill set and basketball IQ and believed that he had something he can work with.
To tap into his potential, however, Go, had to make some tremendous sacrifices.
"I told Isaac, 'You're not going to eat rice anymore'," Baldwin revealed.
Go's response was priceless. According to Baldwin, the player told him: "But my mom will get upset with me if I don't eat rice."
"And I said, 'I'm already upset with you, that you're telling me that'," the coach said.
Go doesn't deny that it took him a while to get with the program in terms of his diet. "It's been an incredible journey," he said. "I remember, yes, the first day, he (Baldwin) called me fat. I was at 250 pounds entering the first few weeks of training."
He has since slimmed down to 235 pounds, but not before having a "long talk" with Baldwin to discuss his diet and eating habits, which apparently included going against his mother's wishes and no longer eating rice.
It wasn't just the change in diet that paved the way for Go's massive improvement. A boot camp in the United States and a tough campaign in the FilOil tournament were just among the struggles that Go and the Blue Eagles had to go through before they proved good enough to make it to the UAAP Finals.
"Everything just compiled to help us get stronger now," said Go. "Each adversary increased our trust in coach, and increased the trust we have for each other."
Go may have gotten praise for his defensive play in the final possession of the game against FEU, but for Baldwin, he was simply doing what he was supposed to do.
"He did his job," he said. "I don't think he did anything remarkable there. He did his job. Maybe, Fat Isaac wouldn't have gotten there, and that's a credit to our coaching staff and the work they've done. They turned him into a much better athlete than he was."
Go admits that he never once imagined that he will be the one to make what essentially was the game-winning basket for the Blue Eagles. "I've always just imagined myself playing my best," he said.
Baldwin is expecting to see more from Go as his career progresses. "He's just an evolving commodity," the coach said. "I think we're going to see some pretty special things from this kid over the next few years."
Baldwin was quick to add that there is still a long way to go for Go, and it all starts on Saturday when he goes up against the tough La Salle frontline in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 79 Finals.
"He's going to be in a war next week," Baldwin said.
"But he has shown everything that I like in a basketball player," he added. "He's shown intelligence, he's shown heart, he's shown intensity, and now, he's shown some pretty good toughness. This is what great players are made of. I think he has a big upside."
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