Thirdy Ravena becomes Ateneo’s closer as Blue Eagles continue to fly

Naveen Ganglani
Ateneo isn't supposed to be in the position it is, but they've secured twice-to-beat advantage thanks in large part to Thirdy Ravena

MANILA, Philippines – Thirdy Ravena started dancing with the leather basketball as Adamson rookie Jerrick Ahanmisi took the challenge to contain him at the 3-point line.

First, a crossover to the right, then a crossover to the left, followed by backing Ahanmisi down in the paint with brute force as fans of Adamson threw jeers from the stands. Ravena then went for a turnaround, but the shot missed. Papi Sarr couldn’t stop Isaac Go from grabbing the offensive rebounds, but the Blue Eagles big man misfired on his put-backs.

Before any of the 3 Soaring Falcons in the paint could jump for the leather and run down the other end for an attempt at a comeback, Ravena, an athletic freak of nature, was already in the air, the tips of his fingers pushing the ball back in the basket, once again leading Ateneo to a victory.

As Ravena swung his right arm and let out screams of emotions while the Ateneo crowd cheered in support, what was a developing trend for the red-hot Blue Eagles became pretty clear: the prodigal son has become this team’s closer.

“I’m just trying to follow Coach Tab [Baldwin], cause he just asks me to do it, probably cause I just wanted to win,” Ravena later said following the Blue Eagles’ elimination round-ending 73-67 triumph over the Soaring Falcons

The atmosphere of the contest was Final Four-like. Win, and Ateneo secures the second spot which means a twice-to-beat advantage against the team that eliminated them last season, FEU. Lose, and a virtual best-of-3 series with Adamson commences next week. 

It was pretty clear, especially with how they rallied from an early deficit, what the Blue Eagles preferred.

“It’s a grind-out game, it’s a tough game. Someone has to make sure we get that win, and every single one of us contributed to that,” Ravena explained.

It’s pretty obvious that something changed with these Blue Eagles after their loss against the UP Maroons which was their low point for Season 79. The Ateneo team since then has looked like a championship-caliber roster, one that’s well-coached, confident, and lethal. Six straight wins later, including a “We don’t plan on laying down” victory against La Salle, and suddenly the Green Archers don’t look like a sure bet to win the UAAP title anymore.

“Our loss to UP was a blessing in disguise, because we woke up. We weren’t the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the first round and first game of the second round, so we woke up,” said second-year standout Mike Nieto, who’s lost 35 pounds from last year and has been a revelation himself.

“Everyone just probably realized we didn’t work that hard just to lose. We just dug deep,” Ravena shared about what changed following the team’s fall to 4-4 – it’s last loss more than 5 weeks ago.

GET THAT BOARD. Ateneo has won 10 games this season on a lot of team effort. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Truth be told, Ateneo isn’t even supposed to be here in the enviable situation it’s in. Is Baldwin a tremendous coach? Absolutely. But the Blue Eagles lost 7 key players to academic issues over the summer, found out prized recruit Tyler Tio couldn’t suit up yet this year due to citizenship issues, then watched Aaron Black go down early in the season to a foot injury.

Yet despite all that, this year’s Blue Eagles have an even better record than the one of last year led by league MVP Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal, and are favored to make the finals for the first time since 2012.

“I guess it’s a surprise to other people, but for us we just focused on every game and [said], ‘we’ll see where we end up.’ We ended up number two,” said assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.

The Tamaraws now await Ateneo for another semis showdown, one that’s expected to be high on emotions, involves a few thrown elbows, and quite possibly ends dramatically. Remember Mac Belo’s game-winner, anyone?

FEU is the defending champion, and it won’t go down easily, but after dominating the Tamaraws in their season series, do the Blue Eagles enter with the upper hand? It sure looks like it.

Just don’t tell them that.

“They’re a champion team. They’re the defending champions, so we really have to go through them. They’re a tough team, and we don’t think that we have the advantage. That’s a trap for us,” said Arespacochaga.

As Nieto put it, “It’s going to be a dogfight… patayan yan for sure, kasi they’re the defending champions.”

The Blue Eagles have looked as great as they have because of unselfishness on offense and headstrong defense, to put it simply. It’s unpredictable where the scoring comes from each game, and on the other end, teams have to fight like hell to get buckets. Just ask Ben Mbala or the Soaring Falcons, who scored only 8 points in the final period of their most important game of the eliminations.

But one of the most important factors of winning at the highest level includes having a go-to closer at the end of games. Kiefer Ravena was just that since the moment he first entered the UAAP, and now, his little brother has taken the mantle.

The best part? Thirdy isn’t doing it by scoring on tough step-back jumpers or making a lay-up over 6 outstretched arms in the paint. Older brother could do everything on the court, but putting the ball in the hole was his undisputed and expected best quality. “Thirds,” meanwhile, is a jack of all trades who has the ability to impact the game through so many dimensions at any moment.

The scoreboard read 62-59 in favor of Ateneo with 3:46 remaining after a Sarr put-back. Nerves were creeping up fans of the Blue Eagles crowd, who suddenly turned silent with the possibility of a meltdown in the making.

Ravena had the ball in his hands, then used his explosiveness to attack the basket where Sarr had to leave the paint and impede his path. That left Go – Sarr’s man – wide open for an easy lay-up, dished by Ravena. The lead was back up to 5.

After Rob Manalang missed on a triple, Ravena fought off Sarr for a defensive rebound then attacked the lane again. 

“[Our] coaches did a great job of scouting, and they scouted that Papi Sarr over-helps all the time, so every time I drive, I always make sure I know where my big man is,” Thirdy explained his thought process later on.

True enough, Sarr over-helped a second consecutive play, giving Ravena the opportunity to once again find Go for another lay-up with 2:52 left. 

Close to a minute later, Ravena scored on the put-back, roared loud enough for the muted Adamson crowd to hear, and delivered the victory. Overall, Ravena finished with 14 points, 13 boards, and 5 assists – 4 in the final quarter alone, where Adamson had zero.

Before the season started, Ravena was looking for vindication after sitting out a year due to academic ineligibility, which involved seeing Belo break the hearts of Ateneo and putting a premature end to his brother’s prolific UAAP career from the stands.

“I just want to move forward and leave it behind, but also it’s motivation for me to give my all,” he said on Wednesday. 

Ravena also shared something more personal 3 months ago. “I just want to be known as Thirdy Ravena. Not the ‘brother of Kiefer,’ or ‘son of Bong,’ but Thirdy Ravena.”

He’s probably not there yet, but he’s definitely on his way. –