Nash Racela on Finals Opponent: Kahit Sino
Paolo Mariano on Nov 22, 2015 07:38 AM
“It’s hard to say if it’s our time. Last year, we we’re up by one game (in the finals) but we still lost. Hangga’t hindi pa namin hawak ‘yung trophy, mahirap sabihin na it’s our time. But that’s still our ultimate goal.” - Nash Racela
Nash Racela was slumped on a rattan-adorned steel chair inside the white-colored walls of the press room at the Araneta Coliseum. He frisked his hair and casually examined the game statistics printed on a sheet of paper.
“Ang galing ni Wong ‘no?” said Racela.
The congenial Far Eastern University (FEU) mentor was pertaining to Adrian Wong, Ateneo de Manila University’s rookie guard, who spearheaded the Blue Eagles’ inspired comeback in the fourth quarter after being down as much as nine points in the first half.
Racela didn’t need to analyze FEU’s stats thoroughly. At least not yet. During those blissful yet fleeting moments on the winner’s chair, the only thing that mattered to him was that they won. No, check that— they survived. The fourth-year FEU drillmaster looked more relieved than triumphant. Obviously thankful that they won’t have to play a winner-take-all against the potent Blue Eagles on Wednesday.
The Tamaraws narrowly escaped Ateneo in their Final Four duel, 76-74. Mac Belo—unassuming yet unyielding—made a put-back at the buzzer to give his team the nail-biting, palm-sweating victory and of course, the ticket to the finals.
But instead of nitpicking their gaffes or thumping his chest with the victory, Racela chose to acknowledge the unheralded Wong, who scored a career-high 17 points, 10 coming in the fourth quarter. Racela sounded genuinely impressed. Like someone reading the features of a new laptop.
“Four years pa maglalaro ‘yun,” added Racela.
Then his admiration morphed into introspection. A few seconds later, RR Pogoy and Belo entered the press room. The former flashed a huge grin. The latter looked like he just got rejected by the love of his life. Racela refocused on the task at hand. He knew their job is far from over.
For the second straight year, they’re in the Last Dance, just waiting for University of Santo Tomas (UST) or National University (NU) to get dressed and take the floor with them. To sway, to twirl, to cha-cha to the beating drums and the deafening cheers.
Maybe save for a Bobby Knight or a Bill Belichick, no coach would dare say what team he prefers to face in the finals. Most feel it’s disrespectful and arrogant. Foolish, even. But come on, everyone knows coaches have a preference. They just don’t like to admit it for the sake of diplomacy and sportsmanship.
Racela was no different, much to the chagrin of everyone in the press room.
One thing’s clear though: FEU has a score to settle with UST and NU.
“Kahit sino,” Racela said when asked the inevitable question. “We’re just happy to be in the finals. Gusto naman namin bumawi either way. NU tinalo kami sa finals last year, UST tinalo kami both games this season.”
Despite winning Game 1, the Tamaraws failed to capture the crown last season as the Bulldogs completed an unprecedented upset. The Growling Tigers, meanwhile, swept FEU in the elimination round for the first time since 2006.
Finding motivation in the championship shouldn’t be a problem for the Tams. But as with any team, they have to tend to their own backyard first.
“We just have to take care of our own preparation. It doesn’t matter who we face in the finals. We just have to mind our business,” said FEU athletic director Mark Molina, who was all smiles watching the Tamaraws celebrate inside the dugout.
FEU lost to UST by a solitary point in their first meeting, 72-71 and 85-76 in their second encounter. The Tamaraws gave up 78.5 PPG and only grabbed 37.5 RPG in those defeats, below their averages of 67.6 points allowed and league-leading 48.2 rebounds.
They split their season series with NU: winning 61-59 in the first round and absorbing a 70-68 loss in the rematch. In those two games, Belo didn’t score in twin digits. Mike Tolomia, however, averaged 21.0 PPG.
As the post-game press conference rolled along, Racela also acknowledged his players. Belo for making the game-winner, Pogoy for hitting big shots and making a key defensive stop, and Tolomia, who soon followed in the press room, for being the facilitator.
“Si Mac naka-shoot ng game-winner pero it’s a total team effort,” said Racela, who has transformed the Tamaraws into a more unselfish, fluid crew this season.
Racela and his wards saw the UAAP diadem slip from their hands last season. But this time around, tagged as the consensus favorite to win it all since the onset, the Tamaraws know better. As the adage goes, history is the best teacher.
“We’re a deeper team. Mac, Mike, and RR didn’t play as much (in the elimination round) compared to last year. Pagdating tuloy sa finals, parang naubusan na ng gas. Hopefully, they’ll have more energy in the finals this time,” said Molina.
“It’s hard to say if it’s our time. Last year, we we’re up by one game (in the finals) but we still lost. Hangga’t hindi pa namin hawak ‘yung trophy, mahirap sabihin na it’s our time. But that’s still our ultimate goal,” said Racela.
As of now, yes, it’s their time—to wait.