Jovet Mendoza pressed the white towel draped over his shoulders like a flag to wipe his cheeks that were glistening with a mixture of sweat and tears. He, along with Joshua Webb, had just played their last game as members of the Green Archers. And with the Ateneo gallery turned into a sea of clenched and raised fists booming their alma mater song from behind him, the tears fell freely, and he pressed the towel closer to his face as his sobbing seemed to wrench his entire body.
Beside Mendoza is Yutien Andrada, who was squatted and whose expression showed a combination of disappointment and exhaustion. He had played for 26 minutes and had scored 17 points on a 7-of-8 shooting from the field, and had grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots and had an assist, and for a time, it seemed enough to propel his team to a win, but in the end it still wasn’t.
He was approached by Assistant Coach Mac Cuan, who helped him stand up and whispered consoling words in his ear before tapping his chest a couple of times. And they weren’t the only Archers with tears welling from their eyes.
Disappointment washed over and overwhelmed these Archers like a wave, but as they formed a neat line and filed into the dug-out, they were showered with a raucous applause from the thousands of Lasallians who were in attendance. And for their efforts in today’s game, they deserved every bit of that ovation that they received, and more.
In order to defeat these Blue Eagles, it was said that they would have to play a perfect game. And they nearly did. This time, they made sure that there would be no double-digit margins separating their score from that of their rivals. They were here in the Final Four, and they were here to play.
But despite leading by as much as 11 points early in the fourth and final quarter, the Green Archers eventually yielded to the Blue Eagles, 66-63 earlier today at the Smart- Araneta Coliseum, in a game that was highly reminiscent of old La Salle-Ateneo encounters in the postseason.
Almond Vosotros headed straight towards the basket, and a phalanx of blue shirts was ready to meet him. But at the last second, instead of going all the way to the hoop, he fired a pass that went straight into the hands of Andrada, who scored on yet another undergoal stab. Pandemonium erupted in one half of the Big Dome, while a pressing silence hung like a heavy cloud over the other side. The La Salle lead was 11, 49-38, their biggest of the game.
After a dunk by Greg Slaughter and a split at the line by Ryan Buenafe, Andrada once more received the ball and popped a jumper from the elbow which found the bottom of the net. Ravena would answer with an and-one play that brought the Eagles within seven, 44-51, but La Salle was still able to hold the fort with a two-for-two trip from the line from Norbert Torres and a jumper by Mendoza to pad their lead to eight, 55-47, with 6:29 left in the game.
By the time that La Salle would score their next field goal (a lay-up by Jeron Teng over Ravena’s stingy defense), the time was down to 2:50, Ravena had dropped 16 of his 28 points in the quarter, and the Eagles had wrested the lead, 59-57.
Vosotros, who finished with 14 points and would score five more points to give the Archers their last taste of the lead, 62-61, with a minute and change left on the clock. But after receiving the ball from the left corner, Buenafe rifled in another trifecta with 55.6 seconds left.
The door for the upset and a rubber match with the defending champions however was still open for La Salle, and with 15.6 seconds left, Ravena was slapped with an unsportsmanlike foul on Jeron Teng, which bequeathed the Archers two free throws plus ball possession.
Teng then found himself in a familiar place: the free throws line, where he split his charities and trimmed the Ateneo lead down to a solitary point, 63-64. But their last possession resulted in an unfortunate turnover, and a pair of charities from Buenafe pegged the final count.
After scoring three quick buckets during the game’s opening minutes, Teng scored only six points the rest of the way to finish with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block. He shot 5-for-18 from the field overall and had a hard time against the defense of Ravena and Buenafe.
One of the last people who left the arena was a couple of La Salle alumni clad in green. They were still staring at the scoreboard, as if the numbers on them might change any time. “I guess we should be happy,” one said. “We witnessed a beautiful game, and we saw how good the team will be.” The other one nodded slowly, ponderously.
They clapped each other on the back and slowly headed out for the exits, as the lights inside the arena were turned off, one after the other.
Notes: If the basis for the Mythical Five for this season will be statistical points (SP’s) accumulated by the players after the elimination round, then Jeron Teng will most likely crack this list and become the first Green Archer since JV Casio and Rico Maierhofer in 2008 to be a part of the Mythical Five. Teng will join FEU’s Terrence Romeo, UST’s Karim Adbul, Ateneo’s Greg Slaughter, and NU’s Bobby Ray Parks in the pantheon of the league’s top players.
Ateneo-66- Ravena-28, Salva-12, Buenafe-10, Tiongson-5, Slaughter-4, Chua-4, Sumalinog-3, Pessumal-0, Gonzaga-0, Golla-0, Elorde-0
La Salle-63- Andrada-17, Vosotros-14, Teng-12, N. Torres-6, T. Torres-5, Van Opstal-3, Mendoza-2, Webb-0, Revilla-0
Quarterscores: 14-12, 31-26, 38-47, 66-63