When play resumed, La Salle had in its hands the most important inbound pass of the season.
Alas, La Salle bungled it, flinging its weakest pass in years that made Andrei Caracut impossibly unable to make a clear catch.
Matt Nieto was there to deny Caracut what would have been the insurance scoop, tapping the toss onto Ateneo country before fishing a foul himself with 3.1 ticks left.
Nieto, shaking the cobwebs of his missed free throws last year that keyed La Salle’s triumph in their 2016 Finals duel, coolly sank the game-winning charities.
Nieto’s Dad, a former Eagle himself, was caught on TV seemingly praying “Hail Mary” while his son were delivering the fatal blows for La Salle.
But La Salle had one last stab at victory when its last inbound play with 3.1 seconds left went true as an arrow as Ben Mbala, the chief Archer, caught it.
But at times, even the best could be in their worst.
Mbala acted suicidal trying insanely to barge his way into the hoop, senselessly plodding into an Ateneo wall to completely miss it. Kit Montalbo, the Nieto fouler, would flub a follow-up at the buzzer.
After the thriller deserving of the tag “Sunday Suspense Theater,” a friend of mine said: “This game proves that Ayo [La Salle coach] is no good at crafting a winning inbound play.”
Losers take the rap—almost always.
TIME left was 9.1 seconds (not 7.1). La Salle led Ateneo 75-74. By anyone’s reckoning—save for half of the 14,717 crowd that packed the MOA Arena in Pasay—La Salle would be off and running to its sixth win in seven games (its lone loss was painfully inflicted by lowly UP).
Should La Salle’s win be completed, it would snap Ateneo’s six-game winning streak. They’d be tied 6-1 for the lead after the first round of the UAAP basketball tournament.
All the signs were there for a La Salle victory.
One, La Salle had ball possession. Two, La Salle had a timeout, which it had harnessed to the fullest.
Three, Ateneo, which had controlled the game almost all throughout after building a 28-16 first quarter bubble, had suddenly turned as cold as ice—unable to hit a single basket in the last five minutes of the electric-laden battle.
But what happened next was like a scene from a Greek drama of ages ago: Glory for Ateneo, tragedy for La Salle.