The air is humming - An Eagle's Nest special by A.R.Samson
This game was between the team tied for number 2 (before the start of the first game) at 8-4 against a team playing its last game and living in the cellar where they keep old newspapers and rusty trophies at 3-10, the university host of Season 79, the Pontifical U playing its last game. It had nothing to lose, but also nothing to gain, well, except perhaps pride after being the doormat of the series and not too long ago being run over by a tank without anesthesia by the top team--the one that must not be named. That's a lot of pride to fight for. A lot.
Also, the narrative of upsets by no-hope teams on pretenders to the throne is too recurring in college ball, even with the Blue Eagles in decades past. Sometimes, these improbable losses would change travel plans--oh, we don't have to wait for the playoffs? Those last placers have a way of turning a walk in the park into a mugging.
The Growling Tigers (formerly known as the Glowing Goldies) bared their fangs early and got the crowd going. Their noisy backers included two other schools waiting for their turn in the second game lustily cheering what I consider one of the best (and easiest to learn) rants--Go USTe. (Did I spell that right?) Ah yes, it's a new form of outsourcing involving common interests in seeing a rival bite the dust. The two other teams' fans waiting their turn after all wanted an upset--the first team to improve their chances for getting the remaining twice-to-beat spot with two games left, and the other one out of sheer malevolence, okay that's too strong a word, let's say...displeasure, at having to put away their brooms. To be fair, I had a hard time cheering for the former broom owners even when it was clearly to the Blue's advantage in the rankings to do so. Who said this thing was rational?
The game lived up to its anxiety-inducing billing. It was low-scoring and too close for comfort throughout. In the first quarter, it was a see-saw battle with more lead changes than an amateur boy band. Q1 ended at 16-15, slim advantage Blue Eagles. This kind of tight game (keep it close, boys) favors the upset-seeking team. The trend of winning all quarters had been maintained but up to the third canto, the Blue Eagles seemed just too unhurriedly upping the lead in inches--38-36 at the half; 58-53 at the end of Q3. (What did they have for lunch?) For the arithmetically challenged, that is a growing lead of only 1, 2, and 5, similar to the pace of growth of a mollusk. This slow linear progression if projected to the end game is open to some last-three-seconds buzzer-beating triple. This is a Philips-screwdriver-on-the-eye-socket (you blinked) blow from the other team, probably delivered by a player off the bench fated to take the winning (or losing) one-point margin stands-on-their-feet (all three) celebration--David and Goliath story, a fitting exit for the striped cat.
Didn't happen. But could have.
Still, the lackadaisical, low-energy, "how is my hair", and "stop and smell the roses" kind of pace by the Blue Eagles was so different from their previous four outings when all cylinders were firing from the jump ball to the last possession arrow. The lead would stay thin. The margin would hit a wall at five points and then go back and forth, getting into a tie and then pulling away a bit again. The Blue Eagles had 14 turnovers in the first half and 23 overall against a team that did not employ a full court press and didn't double the ball carrier, but threw an efficient floating zone that interrupted the passing lanes and prevented fast breaks. Still, the statistics show The Blue Eagles dominance in points in the paint 42-26. So, there were still some nifty passing and inside plays. Isaac Go (15 points) and Vince Tolentino (11 points) were attacking the rim with consistency and good results.
Just to show how close the game was, as late as the 35th minute in the fourth quarter (or five minutes to go in the game) the score was at 62-59, a slim one-possession lead by the Blue Eagles with the Tigers' surprising scoring sock from the perimeter. Only in the last two minutes (1:52) did the double-digit lead finally materialize at 73-63. This was a flurry of shooting fireworks from the Blue Eagles, a finishing kick of 12-5 with four minutes left. This was opened up by Mike Nieto's shot-clock beating triple from the side from a Hail Mary pass in the scramble. The shot swishing through the net and the lights on the board to declare the 24-second clock expiry were singing in harmony--yes sir, that's my baby.
There are four things to note on this game.
1) The center position has firmed up with the rising minutes of Isaac Go (15 points). He delivers what big men are supposed to--shots near the rim after a pass and no dribble, defensive rebounds, and offensive ones with put-backs from missed shots. The Blue Eagles no longer have to rely on just a one-shot attempt. And big man Ikeh with 5 points (hey, that's huge, man) in a welcome elevation of his skills set, with rebounds now safely tossed to runners...from his own team. His rebound handling is no longer what Friend A used to call "taking candy from a baby" (I was just holding it a while ago). Big forward Tolentino also opens up the shaded area and forms part of the expanded gang of bigs. Of course, the guards too like Thirdy and Aaron can pluck the balls bouncing from the rim.
2) Rotation of players is broader. Additional role players from the bench are being tried. This is in preparation for the playoff round to meet any gaps from foul trouble and possible injuries. The balance in playing minutes for the starters and bench has yielded one of the most prolific bench points for the Blue Eagles. Also, increasing rest minutes for the scorers allow stronger finishing kicks, and the ability to withstand rallies chipping at big leads.
3) There are no longer any safe games. Even the cellar dweller in this last game gave the Blue Eagles (most specially the stands) a bit of a scare. Every game needs to be won to keep the momentum. The last one this Wednesday is a must-win to avoid a possible three way log jam for second place.
4) With five wins in double digits, although this last one barely, the team is getting in the groove. The biggest change from its first round plays is the all-quarter effort. A strong first quarter dictates the tempo and the players coming off the bench are usually also the accelerators that push the pedal to the metal.
Our song is from a play that features rival gangs going at it, turf wars, and nervous neighborhoods where cops are trying vainly to keep the piece. Yes, it's a nice love story. Derived from the iconic Shakespearean play of star-crossed lovers from feuding families, "West Side Story" too is about hope. In the number sung by Tony (Romeo) who just met Maria (Juliet) he muses about "Something's Coming". "I don't know what it is/ but it is / gonna be great...the air is humming/ and something great is coming/ who knows?..." Aren't basketball games gang wars?
The elimination round is winding up on Wednesday with the typhoon-postponed game. This is a must-win to secure the second seed. After that, a breather with the cheer dance competition. And then once again, it's time for the Blue Eagles to, well...unleash hell.
On to the fray. OBF!
Photos courtesy of Leo Lopez, Fabilioh.com