FLASHBACK: How Ateneo also stopped a La Salle sweep 14 years ago
Gerry Plaza on Nov 11, 2016 06:04 PM
Fourteen years ago, the Ateneo Blue Eagles prevented the De La Salle Green Archers an outright sweep (Photo courtesy of Wesley Gonzales).
A rampaging Green Archer team all set to sweep a UAAP elimination round was not at all new.
Moreso, the team that left De La Salle University in tatters in their hopes of getting a Finals berth outright without a Final Four is one and the same—rivals Ateneo Blue Eagles.
Surely this loss of the Big Ben Mbala-powered Archers, with its immaculate slate smeared by the Eagles last week, was actually a surreal case of history repeating itself.
This La Salle team 14 seasons ago, bannered by Mike Cortez, Joseph Yeo, Willie Wilson and Mac Cardona, had one lofty stature going to this final game in the eliminations on September 14, 2002.
The mood was quite the same. People were expecting an Archer romp, given that prized point guard LA Tenorio had been sidelined, and that their streak was very much imposing and fearsome with their own version of the present day “Mayhem.” And of course, the Archers were on the verge of a rare five-peat.
La Salle Coach Franz Pumaren was very much particular about the full court press, and this he successfully inculcated on his wards—bludgeoning the Eagles with the tactic on their first-round 70-60 victory.
And it seemed they had no intention to back down in their second meeting that year from the opening horn at the Araneta Coliseum. La Salle raced to a six-point bulge that left Ateneo scoreless in the first five minutes, 6-0.
But when Epok Quimpo buried a three at the 5:38 mark of the first quarter to put the Eagles in the scoring column and cut the Archer lead in half, 6-3, Ateneo found redemption.
Celebrated forward Wesley Gonzales answered the call.
After Larry Fonacier delivered on an undergoal stab and Rich Alvarez connected his own triple, Gonzales scorched with five straight points from the field to blank the Archers with a 13-0 run and surge with a 13-6 lead, around three minutes to go in the period.
Ateneo kept that lead at the end of the first quarter, capped by Gec Chia’s buzzer beating fastbreak layup, 22-15.
King Eagle Enrico Villanueva and Chia helped balloon the lead to 10 in the second period, 33-23, before Wilson and Cortez buckled down to business. With the Cool Cat’s 11 first half points, the Archers raced to an 11-3 run by the end of the half to further slice the Eagle lead to two, 36-34.
By the start of the second half, it was a duel between the bitter rivals’ incredible scorers. Fonacier bristled with seven straight, and Cardona answering with five of his own. Cortez would then tie the game at 43-all with two free throws.
Then after a Carlo Sharma miss, Gonzales took matters in his own hands with a transition basket, recapturing the lead for Ateneo, 45-43.
And, since then, the Eagles never looked back.
The final canto became truly a solo Ateneo show!
Stonewall defense, rebounding dominance, and streak shooting from the field made the Blue Eagles soar high. And one Atenean gave his best: Andrew Cruz.
Cruz stormed with a triple and two free throw conversions to keep La Salle at bay. Best of all, he stopped a normally prolific Cortez from his scoring binges as he became the Ateneo sparkplug shining all throughout the remaining minutes of the game.
A surprising offensive silence and uncharacteristic turnovers plagued the Archers since, allowing the Blue Eagles to build a 20-point lead, 64-44, with 7:15 to go.
Thus, Ateneo smelled blood.
Man of the hour
Cruz continued his magic as he scored all his ten points in the quarter, with able support from his backcourt partner Quimpo, Gonzales, Alvarez and Fonacier in a stinging game that left La Salle gasping. By the last three minutes, Pumaren had waved the white flag calling back his starters who sat the closing minutes.
And Ateneo would stare at a feat it thought was impossible, bringing the sweeping La Salle bandwagon to a screeching halt with a resounding 76-63 win.
The Blue Eagle coach Joel Banal couldn’t have said it better: “I feel like we have won the championship.” And, a few weeks later, his remarks became prophetic. Ateneo would again face La Salle in the Finals, in which the Hail Mary team triumphed, 2-1, in what they coined as their “unforgettable season.”
While we can see haunting parallels to Ateneo’s 83-71 shocking win over La Salle on November 5 that ended the Taft ballclub’s 12-game winning streak, it becomes an interesting question if a Finals meeting would also get that bizarre reprise this year.
Surely, this deserves exciting anticipation as the Final Four contenders in Season 79 are being slowly revealed.