MANILA, Philippines – It seems likely now that the UAAP’s source of clutch had always hidden in Katipunan Avenue.
After winning a league-best 13 straight games to open Season 80, the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles suddenly found their campaign in a very unfamiliar and unexpected place – down 3 points, 75-72, with 24 seconds left against the 7-7 4th seed Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws. Already in the midst of a two-game losing streak, the Eagles were on the brink of being denied the opportunity to redeem last year’s Finals loss against mortal rival De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers.
An elated and raucous FEU fan base bust out a Mexican wave during the Eagles’ final timeout. Why shouldn’t they? They were less than a minute away from the Finals.
In a time of distress, Coach Tab Baldwin turned to the same man who blew his chance to punch Ateneo’s ticket to 14-0 and an outright Finals spot: Isaac Go. Had he nailed his hook shot back then against La Salle, they probably wouldn’t be in this dire position in the first place. Down by 3 with little time left, the Eagles’ entire season now depended on a tying trey. It was Finals or bust.
When play resumed, Go received the inbound pass and dumped it off to Matt Nieto, their primary perimeter threat. He then screened and backed off behind the line as help defense collapsed on Nieto. With Go left open, Nieto flung the ball towards him. Ron Dennison flew in his direction to block. Go faked and pulled up.
Splash. The last Finals spot hung in the balance at 75-all.
With 8 seconds left, former Eagle Arvin Tolentino called for an isolation. He dribbled the clock away only to fumble at the very last second.
Season 80’s first-ever overtime couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial time.
In the final minute of the extra period, Ateneo created enough breathing room, 85-80, off a Matt Nieto trey. However, Richard Escoto promptly answered for FEU with a pull-up mid-range jumper off the inbound pass.
30 seconds left, Nieto put up a difficult turn-around 3. Just when everyone thought Go couldn’t best his tying shot at regulation, he grabbed the offensive board falling down and somehow sank a Hail Mary banked shot while kneeling on the floor.
Before anyone could make any sense of what just happened, Ateneo went up 5, 87-82, and successfully ran away straight back to the UAAP Finals. Ron Dennison’s career was over and Olsen Racela once again ate up a late-game loss to end his first coaching season.
As the dust settled, an overjoyed Go had time for jokes before getting back to work against another DLSU showdown.
“Gusto ko sana parang kay Paul [Desiderio] eh, “Atin ‘to,” pare!” (“I wanted to go like Paul, “This is ours!”)
On a more serious note, however, Go beforehand gave credit to the Tamaraws for fighting back from almost being eliminated from Final 4 contention.
“They were a 7-7 team, but they played better than their record,” said the sweet-shooting big man.
Regarding the off-the-floor dagger shot in overtime, Go said that he’d rather put it up than lose it in a scuffle against the scrappy Tamaraws.
He also thanked Coach Baldwin for still believing in him despite what happened to him in their previous match against La Salle.
“I just have to thank Coach Tab,” he said. “He showed belief in me. Like throughout the season, my three wasn’t consistent [and] I missed the shot [against] La Salle, but he still believed in me. He was more confident in me than myself.”
Ateneo now rides its clutch-boosted momentum to its best-of-3 Finals rematch against the De La Salle this Saturday afternoon, November 25. Despite a major bump to their otherwise smooth season, the Blue Eagles ended up perching back on top after all. – Rappler.com