Moments of the Decade: Ryan Buenafe’s Three-Peat clinching shot

The final buzzer is nearing for 2019 and with that, the decade is coming to a close as well. Before the 2010s turns over into the 2020s, take a look back at the best basketball moments of the decade for the SLAM PH Team.

Screencap from YouTube / Graphic by SLAM PH

The 2010 Ateneo Blue Eagles weren’t supposed to win a championship. On paper, that team didn’t look very good: three starters from the 2009 squad that won back-to-back were gone, and they didn’t have a great recruiting class. What was left was a young group of mostly good, but not yet great players — the kind of guys that would work best coalescing around a superstar that unfortunately, the team did not have. 

The only player whose game didn’t fit the mold of a role player was Ryan Buenafe a 6’2”, 225 pound enigma. He was the team’s most talented player — a fact that made him so frustrating to support. He had a near-complete offensive package: lulling defenders to sleep with an endless array of jab steps; burrowing through defenders with ease; spinning his way for creative finishes. His footwork and patience inside was straight out of a Carmelo Anthony highlight reel. Buenafe lacked a consistent three-point shot, but he more than made up for it with his court vision — arguably his best and most underrated skill — which was unparalleled at his age and position. 

Unfortunately, Buenafe’s vigor feasting on opposing offenses was only matched on a dining table with liempo and rice. His game-to-game commitment seemed to wane. There would be times when Buenafe would look like the best player in the UAAP, and others when he played with the same eagerness as a kid being forced to do his Kumon homework.

The prevailing notion was that Ateneo needed someone to step up as a star, like Rabeh Al-Hussaini two years prior, if they wanted to win their third in a row. And Buenafe, who won the Rookie of the Year two years before, had the potential to do so. This could have easily been Ryan’s team if he wanted it to be. But did he want to be the guy?

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The answer was clear early in the season. By the first four games, both the prospects of the three-peat and Buenafe emerging as a superstar seemed bleak. The Blue Eagles began UAAP Season 73 with a 2-2 record, and considering that Ateneo went 32-3 from 2008 to 2009, this was uncharted territory for most of the team. That second loss of the season against La Salle was a typical Buenafe game: DLSU struggled to guard him early on but he tailed off as the game progressed, ending with only seven points and the L. He averaged 7.7 points (on 40.4% shooting), 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists that season — solid, but certainly not star-worthy numbers.

While Buenafe’s early struggles continued for most of the season, Ateneo’s did not. The Blue Eagles locked down on defense and ran like crazy en route to a 10-4 record, a twice-to-beat advantage in the semis, and eventually, a spot in the Finals.

Both circumstance and design allowed a different player to lead the team on any given night. On many games it was Eric Salamat, the team’s undisputed leader and top scorer that made Ateneo shirt makers lots of money with a perfect last name. Nico Salva emerged as the team’s best all-around player. Justin Chua, Emman Monfort, and Kirk Long all had their moments. And there was Ryan, chugging along as a mere cog in a system that he needed more than it needed him 

As Ateneo moved on to the Finals, they faced their stylistic opposites in the FEU Tamaraws. While Ateneo succeeded with a whole-is-greater-than-the sum-of-its-parts ideology, FEU employed a we-have-the-best-players-in-the-UAAP-good-luck-defending-us approach. Looking back at that 2010 FEU team shows how stacked they were: they had that season’s MVP in RR Garcia, the imposing Aldrich Ramos-Reil Cervantes frontline, and the Rookie of the Year in Terrence Romeo — all who had given Ateneo fits in their two elimination round matches. The Tamaraws won both of those games. 

For the underdog Blue Eagles to have a chance, two things needed to happen: either the FEU’s stars go cold or someone from Ateneo steps up. The former happened in Game 1. The Tamaraws’ main men didn’t show up while Ateneo could do no wrong, cruising to a 23-point win through a team effort. However, Game 2 was a different story, as FEU stormed out of the gates with a double-digit lead by the end of the first. The vibe was different from the get-go: the Tamaraws’ sense of urgency was palpable, and what worked for the Blue Eagles in Game 1 wouldn’t work this time around.

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Ateneo needed someone to step up and be the go-to guy. And when his team needed it most, Buenafe — the man who didn’t live up to the lofty expectations laid upon him, failed to be the next King Eagle, and struggled to put it all together despite having the most talent on the floor — was the player that decided to etch himself in the history books of UAAP basketball.

People remember what Buenafe did in Game 2 of the 2010 UAAP Finals, but what’s lost in history is how unstoppable he really was in those last three quarters.

Remember when Captain America complete and utterly desecrated nine guys in the famous elevator scene in Winter Soldier? That was Buenafe, albeit slightly chubbier than Chris Evans, to FEU’s defense that game. He brought Ateneo back with five straight points in the first half, and in the fourth quarter, he scored nine of Ateneo’s final 11 points, including this gorgeous spin and fake to give Ateneo a four-point lead with 2:15 remaining. 

Then with 44 seconds left, up 61-59, Ateneo had the chance to ice the game. Buenafe received the ball from Salva and stood, in what felt like an eternity, and stared down Carl Bryan Cruz behind the three-point line. Going for the triple didn’t make sense; Buenafe had been feasting inside the entire quarter and could have easily scored in the paint, driven and kicked it out for an open shot, or drawn the foul. Ateneo didn’t even need a three to make it a two-possession game. Oh, and once again, he famously only shot seven freaking percent from deep that season. 

But math and conventional wisdom never applied to Buenafe — especially in moments like that. Despite shooting much worse from three than Shaquille O’Neal from the free throw line, Buenafe channeled his inner Robert Horry, fired with a hand on his face, and sank the dagger through the hearts of every FEU fan and player in the building. It was breathtaking. 

Ask any anyone in Araneta that day: that was the loudest the Ateneo crowd has ever been, even more than the clutch shots from Gec Chia in 2002 or Isaac Go in 2017. There’s simply nothing sweeter for a sports fan to witness a title that was far from guaranteed — especially one that comes from the moments and players that you least expect it from. 

As Ateneo won two more in the seasons that followed, that dagger became more significant than initially realized. After all, a five-peat sounds a lot better than a pair of two-peats. That shot bridged the Rabeh Al-Hussaini era and the Greg Slaughter era.

As for Buenafe, he never quite lived up to the heights he reached with 22.1 seconds left in Game 2 of the 2010 UAAP Finals. That shot was easily the peak of his basketball career. In that moment, he became the Ryan Buenafe we had always envisioned: a killer on the court that could single-handedly lift Ateneo to the highest of highs. It was only one game, but that performance and dagger were enough to catapult Buenafe into one of the most celebrated Blue Eagles ever — the face of a team that won against all odds. For a supposed disappointment, that’s a damn good way to be remembered. 

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