University of Santo Tomas' Mark Nonoy was one of the few bright spots for the Growling Tigers in an otherwise disappointing Game 1.
The freshman played well beyond his years as he tried to will his team to victory against the Ateneo juggernaut. He put up a career-high 26 points, including 7-of-14 from beyond the arc, and tallied five rebounds, as the Tigers fell 77-91. He was a one-man wrecking crew, playing at breakneck speed while showcasing his outside shooting.
Nonoy's brilliant and fiery play was an outlier as the other Tigers failed to play their best against the Blue Eagles. The Rookie of the Year was left in tears after laying it out on the floor for his team.
"I just did my best because our first group had a hard time so we had to step up," the soft-spoken Nonoy said about his career performance.
The Tigers were out of sorts against the league's undefeated team after playing outstanding basketball in three straight do-or-die games. Soulemane Chabi Yo had 13 points on 13 shots and grabbed 10 rebounds. It was still a double-double for the MVP, but his overall impact was sorely missed. The only other Tiger who reached double-figures was Brent Paraiso who had 14 points and four triples. As for Renzo Subido, Rhenz Abando, and CJ Cansino, they were virtually a non-factor.
"We played bad, really bad. We were not executing. Some players did not play their usual game," said UST coach Aldin Ayo before quickly putting the blame on himself and his assistants. "But I think, the problem is the coaching staff. I think we were not able to prepare them well. There were situations we didn't go through in practice so, on our part, we just want to be patient."
"Finals is a different atmosphere. ...Whatever it is, you can't blame the players. The job of the coaching staff is to simulate things. To the best of our abilities, we are going to do that. But the players, they did everything that they could. Their game just didn't show up. In this situation, the responsibility falls on coaching," he added.
The hot-shooting Tigers still found their range against the Blue Eagles. They shot 40 attempts from beyond the arc and knocked down 14 of them. By all standards, their bread-and-butter weapon was still reliable. However, Ateneo ran the floor against UST, capitalizing on long misses and failed offensive rebound opportunities. The Blue Eagles adjusted and stuck to their game plan against their perimeter-oriented opponents and had 23 fast break points.
"Thirty-four percent? 40 shot attempts? Well, that's our game. We are not going to change that," Ayo said on his team's shooting. "If you look at Ateneo, if you want to beat them, you have to make those threes. If you don't, then they're going to put the ball in front of you. So, let's see. We are also going to look at our system and, of course, there's always a hole in that. We have to look at those weaknesses we can exploit."
If the Blue Eagles ran at every opportunity, Mark Nonoy did the same by attacking aggressively every time he touched the ball. Throughout the season, the 5-foot-8 speedster has constantly shown he has the right mix of quickness and explosiveness that makes him one of the most difficult guards to stay in front of.
"Mark Nonoy is obviously a problem for us, not [for] them. He played a tremendous game," acknowledged Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin. "He ran himself right into the ground. He was dead at the end of the game. That's very courageous. He got a lot of respect for that. Our team has a lot of respect for their players and their coaching staff."
The young kid from La Carlota, Negros Occidental got the full measure of the best defensive team in the UAAP. Among the players who guarded Nonoy were Ateneo's defensive specialist Gian Mamuyac and veteran guard Matt Nieto. He scored 18 first half points and was the primary reason that UST was able to get back in the second period. Unfortunately, he couldn't sustain his production in the latter quarters. He also only had one assist in the lopsided loss.
"Just like in our game in Ynares against Adamson, well, he was unconscious again," Ayo said in Filipino. "But the thing is, we are allowing him to do that. He was unconscious, but he's still where we want him to be as a playmaker. So he has to take those shots every time he's open."
Nonoy has been a tear in the postseason with averages of 15.0 points, on 37 percent field goal shooting including 34 percent from deep, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. Above all, his playmaking - being able to penetrate with ease to either score or get his teammates open looks - has been the main focus of his development in his first year under Ayo. It's no coincidence that despite his 26-point outburst, his coach pointed out his playmaking ability. And if he gets open, he has the green light to pull the trigger.
"At the start, he was looking to dish the ball but nobody could make a shot," Ayo said. "He was getting open so he took those shots. But the kid knows that his role is to set the plays and to make his teammates better."
The key for the Tigers now is to incorporate Nonoy's aggressiveness, penetration, and playmaking ability to their style of play in the face of Ateneo's defense. Their 3-point shooting was still prevalent, but they were caught off guard as the Blue Eagles played pedal to the metal.
"It's up to coach Aldin and what adjustments he'll make for the betterment of the team for Game 2," Nonoy said in Filipino. "The loss hurts because we fell short of our goal. We'll bounce back in Game 2."
"I told the players that we just have to handle this loss the right way," Ayo said. "That means going back to our videos and look at our mistakes. We have to correct them. We have three days to prepare for Wednesday."