By Jerome Lagunzad
For thousands of Ateneo fans inside the Smart Araneta Coliseum and those watching on their television sets, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But for the Blue Eagles’ coaching staff and players, it was a painful lesson that they need to learn from.
“Like every game, every situation, we always tell our players to learn,” admitted long-time Ateneo assistant Sandy Arespacochaga, sticking to the positives of a blown chance following a 92-83 loss to defending champion La Salle Wednesday night that set up a deciding Game 3 in their UAAP basketball finals series.
The Blue Eagles, oozing with confidence following a 76-70 win in the opener over the weekend, showed up locked and loaded, firing on all cylinders right from the get-go and led by 21 points twice in the first half.
Just when it appeared that they were already down for the count, the Green Archers showed some signs of life in the final three minutes of the second period then shut down the fading Blue Eagles in the third that paved the way for an impressive finish.
“Big leads, especially in the first half, scare the hell out of me,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said. “It was tough because we had a big lead and I’m a coach that hates big leads. That may sound ironic but in today’s world I think young people don’t have a killer instinct.”
Already out of its rhythm, La Salle endured another big blow when shifty guard Ricci Rivero picked up his fourth personal foul and was pulled out by coach Aldin Ayo with 3:23 left to play, with Ateneo enjoying a 49-28 advantage.
Instead of panicking, the Green Archers played with better sense of urgency as Ben Mbala and diminutive guard Aljun Melecio ignited a 14-2 counterattack to pull them within nine points at the half.
Then La Salle, with a fired-up Rivero doing what he does best offensively, unleashed its full might in the third where it scored 26 points and limited Ateneo to just eight on 3-of-17 shooting aside from forcing seven errors.
Backup wingman Aaron Black picked up the offensive cudgels for the Blue Eagles in the fourth where he rifled in 11 of his 15 points, including a triple that pulled them within 70-74.
But the Green Archers answered right back with another big run, with Rivero scoring a lay-up, Melecio drilling in a triple and Rivero setting up Mbala for an and-one play to stretch their lead to its highest at 12 points.
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