Keeping Ateneo from bagging a fifth straight UAAP crown on Thursday is a daunting task. But if there's any team that can do the trick, it has to be the University of Sto. Tomas Growling Tigers. After all, it was UST that handed the Blue Eagles their first loss this season, a 71-70 thriller on July 19. In their second round meeting, Ateneo barely escaped another setback to UST, 68-66.
In Game 1 of the finals, the Tigers controlled the first half and limited the four-time defending champions to just 31 points. But the Eagles caught fire in the third period and unloaded 30 points, while limiting the Tigers to just 13. ADMU entered the fourth quarter with a 61-51 lead.
The payoff period saw an exciting contest between the top two collegiate teams. It was the Tigers' turn to step on the gas and almost overtook the Eagles in the remaining few minutes. In fact, UST collected 27 markers in the last 10 minutes of the game. But in endgame, the championship experience of the Ateneans showed, with huge plays from Kiefer Ravena (dagger pull-up jumper), Ryan Buenafe (four-point play) and Juami Tiongson (coast-to-coast drive) to finally seal Game 1, 83-78.
To force a Game 3, the Tigers need to do a number of things. Below are six of the most important must-dos for UST:
1. Better one-on-one defense.
The Tigers are a respectable defensive team but they need to step up on their on-the-ball individual defense to contain Ateneo's key scorers. The end-game heroics of Ravena and Buenafe were the killer blows to UST's great fourth quarter comeback. In the crucial stages of the game, the Tigers can expect Ravena and Buenafe to be the main threats from the outside and so they must do a better job in their one-on-one defense against these two. Part of one-on-one defense is boxing out. In Game 1, Kiefer had four offensive rebounds and Tonino Gonzaga had two. Buenafe had eight defensive boards.
Nico Salva's 30-point explosion also hurt the Tigers. They must assign somebody who can pressure Salva and force him to penetrate more than take the perimeter shots where he is most effective. When he penetrates, the help defense must be ready to meet him. If he posts up, the help defense must be active as well.
But against Greg Slaughter, Coach Pido Jarencio should consider mixing up the defense. If Karim Abdul tries to shackle Slaughter singlehandedly the whole game, he will most likely be saddled with fouls, or be too tired in the endgame. The Tigers must double team on Greg in the post with varying options to confuse the Eagles' counter. The double team may come from the baseline at one point, then from the top at another. Perhaps sometimes they can gamble with a single coverage or even a zone when Slaughter gets the ball. This is just to keep the Eagles guessing because their biggest edge is still Slaughter, despite his forgettable five-point output in Game 1.
2. Go for high percentage shots.
The Tigers are a deadly team from the outside with snipers like Jeric Teng, Aljon Mariano, Jeric Fortuna, Kevin Ferrer and Clark Bautista. But they cannot afford to fall in love with the three-ball every time. In Game 1, they shot a measly 5 of 19 or 26.3% behind the arc. The problem with too many missed long shots is that it's easier for the other team to run and score in the fast break if you don't get the offensive board. Even when the Eagles also hit just five triples in that game, they had six more points inside the paint, and six more from the perimeter. Perhaps the Tigers can run some new half-court sets to allow more inside and perimeter points. Mariano and Ferrer can also occasionally post up as both were former juniors standouts that can play operate inside. Teng, Fortuna, Bautista and even Abdul can look to penetrate more.
3. Sprint back on defense.
The Blue Eagles are also the best running team in the UAAP. They spread the floor so well and are quick to pass the ball forward. In Game 1, Ateneo had nine fast break points and 16 turnover points. The Tigers just lost the game by five. Each time the Tigers lose possession to the Eagles, they must immediately sprint back to the paint and prevent the easy baskets.
4. Stronger inside presence.
It's tough that UST does not have too many big men in its rotation especially when Ateneo has so many. But to win the game, the Tigers must find ways to have a stronger inside presence in both ends of the floor. They were outrebounded by ADMU, 35-45, in Game 1. The Eagles also had 15 offensive boards that produced 10 second-chance points. UST had zero second-chance points. But the Tigers have tall wing players that can help out in rebounding. Again, it's important to put the clamps on Slaughter and block him out. He had 12 caroms in Game 1.
5. Deeper bench rotation.
The Tigers' Achilles' heel is their shallow bench rotation. Only seven players see action for more than ten minutes a game since the start of the season. And the seventh man, Carmelo Afuang, missed Game 1 of the finals due to dengue. Six players are on the floor more than twenty minutes a game, namely Abdul (34.5 minutes), Fortuna (34.2 minutes), Teng (29.4 minutes), Mariano (29.4 minutes), Bautista (23.1 minutes) and Ferrer (21.7 minutes). Afuang plays 16.9 minutes per game. In Game 1, Kim Lo and Paulo Pe got a taste of the action for just seven minutes. Teng, Mariano and Fortuna played with less than two minutes of rest. In a grinding championship match, it would be a huge lift if the key players have enough fuel in the tank during endgame. Coach Norman Black fielded in ten Eagles in Game 1. The bench scoring in Game 1 was 23-5 in favor of Ateneo.
6. Focus on the game.
Jarencio went out in public to express his disappointment over the officiating in Game 1. But in Game 2, he and the entire Tigers bench cannot afford to get distracted by the referees' calls. There will always be bad calls and missed calls in any game. But the biggest damage comes when coaches and players get affected by these and consequently reduce their performance. The Tigers must focus on executing their game plan and making the necessary adjustments in order to win. Watching out for the refs' mistakes may lead to missing out on small details in the game that could affect the outcome.
With a rookie coach Jarencio in 2006, the Tigers were able to pull the rug from under the Blue Eagles to capture the UAAP title. UST was also down 0-1 in the series just like today. But the Tigers took Games 2 and 3 to win the crown.
Will history repeat itself on Thursday? It's possible if the Tigers play their cards right. One thing's for sure, the Eagles won't have a walk in the park if they should get the five-peat.
The Tigers are hungry and angry.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.
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