THERE were a lot of things running through my head as Matt Nieto swished that game-winning triple that lifted Ateneo to a pulsating 77-76 win over Chinese Taipei.
First of all were the free throws by Ying-Chun Chen. He was 1-of-2 before those fateful 3.1 seconds. Somehow, somewhere the order to miss the second free throw was lost in translation. Chen made both to give Chinese Taipei a 76-74 lead.
Much to his coach’s consternation, it gave Ateneo a chance to call time and inbound the ball on their side of the court. The play was brilliant. Double high screen, Matt Nieto is along the baseline. He makes it appear as if he is giving a screen to Jolo Mendoza who runs to the right corner. The defense is fooled as two Chinese defenders run toward Mendoza.
Nieto cuts back up with Isaac Go and Mike Nieto providing a screen. He is a good four, five steps ahead of his primary defender. Thirdy Ravena’s inbound is as precise as Matt doesn’t have anyone on him. He fires. Swish. Ball game.
Second is how Tab Baldwin called that play for Matt Nieto. Up to that point, Matt was struggling. He was 2-of-5 from three-point range. He wasn’t his usual self as he turned the ball over six times. But the coach put the ball in his hands.
That kind of faith was repaid.
And clearly, how good is Tab Baldwin?
After being unceremoniously replaced as Gilas head coach (not the right move in my opinion even right during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament), he took a broken Ateneo team to the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) finals and came close to winning it. Then after that, he got the team to fully buy into his philosophies and system. The result was a UAAP title and a smattering of preseason titles.
How Ateneo has been performing—emphasis on the word performing and not winning because we are not a school that has to win at all costs—especially in this William Jones Cup lately is redemption for him, his belief, and his system. He surely reaffirmed that a team of youngsters given the right coach and system can work wonders.
I wanted to rebut the commentary of a previous game by Ateneo in the Jones Cup where it was asked by the commentators why San Beda let go of William Navarro. The truth is—he left. He wasn’t happy with the coaching staff.
Along with his agent, Nardy Madrasto who is a good friend of mine (he seeks my advice about many things from players to the draft, etc.), we met one rainy morning at Kopi Roti along Katipunan Avenue. I tried to dissuade him from transferring. To instead stay with a team that was a powerhouse in the making.
When I asked William what other reason did he have for transferring as there was a change in the coaching staff of San Beda. He said without mincing his words—it’s Ateneo and I want to play for Tab Baldwin. Well, how do you argue with that, right? So I shook his hand and said, “Then welcome to Ateneo.”
If Robert Bolick Jr. benefited from a change in scenery so did Navarro. If you ask me, he is going to become an important player for Ateneo this coming UAAP season.
Tab Baldwin is a player’s coach who at the same time is a bleeping genius.
Remember how he preached about winning as a team with no superstars and every game there was a different Player of the Game? If you look at the ongoing Jones Cup, in seven games, they have five different scoring leaders! Five.
And how about those game-winning plays?
Was that old San Miguel Beer play drawn up by Norman Black against University of Santo Tomas during the 2006 UAAP Finals one of the best ever? That was a game winner.
The one Tab drew up for Isaac Go against Far Eastern University and then De La Salle were for a championship.
This one might not get a gold medal but still…it will go down as one of the best in Ateneo and well, now, Philippine sports history more so since a college team defeated the national team of a rival country!
And there’s the game itself. The Blue Eagles did not have their usual stuff. Whether fatigue, the defense of the opponent, or jitters since they were playing in front of an entirely hostile crowd, they found a way to win. There were horrible and momentum-killing turnovers, but they always found a way to make up for it. Moreover, they kept the game close and won. It is a resounding victory for flag and country, for the school and the coach.
And fourth and last, at one point in the first half, things were starting to get a little rough. But thankfully, nothing untoward happened. Still, the Blue Eagles always extended that hand of sportsmanship. It reminded me of a story during the 1957 National Collegiate Athletic Association Finals when Ateneo faced Mapua for the championship. At one point, the late great King Eagle Ed Ocampo got punched by a Cardinal player named Meneses.
At this time, the games were getting rougher. Fights were breaking out in regularity. In fact, in about four years’ time, the UAAP would go on hiatus and instead, everyone just played in some home and away format but back to that game. A hush descended on the crowd of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum.
People were anticipating another rumble. Instead, Ed Ocampo shook Meneses’s hand. Situation defused. I recall Sen. Dick Gordon recounting this story during the recording of the Animo Ateneo documentary (circa 1983). Gordon said, “That night I was proud of Ed Ocampo. And I was proud of the Ateneo.”
Wherever this tournament ends for Ateneo, they conducted themselves with a lot of class and top character. They truly gave it One Big Fight. And you know—if I may crib Gordon’s lines because they are so apt—I am proud to be a Filipino. I am proud of Matt Nieto and I am proud of Ateneo de Manila.