Can anyone beat Ateneo?

Naveen Ganglani
Can anyone beat Ateneo?
The defending champion Blue Eagles play like a machine designed to force you into submission



MANILA, Philippines – At least for one quarter, the Adamson Soaring Falcons played the part. They acted the role required of them to belong on the same court as these Ateneo Blue Eagles. They fulfilled our wishes of having a team to rely on for the belief that this season isn’t decided. 

For 10 minutes, they looked undeterred at the Ynares Sports Arena in Antipolo. They came in with the same underdog swagger and belief on display when they emerged victorious the first time these two teams met. The rematch was branded a battle between the two best teams in the UAAP, jockeying for position atop the league standings. The Falcons weren’t taking anybody by surprise this time.

Ateneo remembered that first-round defeat. They played every second on Sunday, November 4, like a team with something to prove. The game was tied at 9 after one period, but in a snap of a finger, the remainder of the program turned into a one-sided show.

The result was undeniable: 62-48, a defensive beatdown of number two who played their worst ever game under Franz Pumaren. Tab Baldwin and the Eagles entered with a master game plan that was executed to perfection. It was a performance that left this question in the air:

Can anyone really beat Ateneo? 

The reigning champs of the UAAP play like a machine designed to force you into submission before you even realize it’s already over. Like death by a thousand scratches, the Blue Eagles patiently and methodically wear down their opponents to the point of demoralization.

Baldwin has these boys playing stingy, on-your-face defense that leave opponents without any room to breathe. The Eagles whip the ball around on offense so much that watching the basketball on television is like following the string of a wild yo-yo. 

Does it look like Ateneo gets all the favorable calls from the refs? Yes, but that’s because the defending champions perform the fundamentals of the game so well that the referees have no choice but to swallow their whistles – and rightfully so. The opposing players, meanwhile, start second-guessing themselves so much due to the unbreakable nature of Ateneo. It’s unfair.

Jerrick Ahanmisi and Sean Manganti went a combined 6-of-24 from the field and looked lost for the first time in Season 81. Papi Sarr was desperate for a substitution towards the end of a 3rd quarter after chasing down Isaac Go on pick-and-pops. The Falcons shot 27% from the field, 44% from the foul line, and committed 22 turnovers. All of that with MVP favorite Angelo Kouame scoring only 6 points in less than 19 minutes.

By the time this game was decided midway through the second half, Adamson had that look on its face which said “What else do we have to do?” 

There was nothing that team could do. The defending champions marked their territory with commanding force. 

“As you’ve seen through the course of this season, it has been Ange (Kouame), it’s been Matt (Nieto), it’s been Thirdy (Ravena), it’s been SJ [Belangel], everybody. It just so happens that it happened to me today,” said Go after he finally had his breakout performance for this season.

“That is our goal, to not make one individual player glorified, but the whole team glorified.”

With the return of the Nieto twins, the Blue Eagles get some stability back to their lineup. The silver lining to the injuries of both guys is that it’s forced the younger players to step-up their game. Tyler Tio has benefited more extended minutes. Same for Belangel. 

The perimeter players are always effective on both ends off the court. With Ravena and Kouame swatting shots inside and dominating the paint on offense, it’s close to impossible to find holes in the defending champs’ armor.

Up next for Ateneo is a battle against their biggest rivals. La Salle is on a roll and there’s a good chance that the Green Archers will have big man Taane Samuel back for their next matchup against the Blue Eagles. With the way DLSU has been playing lately, it’s not a stretch to imagine that game on Sunday, November 11, could also be a finals preview. 

Regardless of the case, the result will be predictable if Ateneo plays the same way it did vs Adamson. One of the most important lessons in the UAAP is to never assume anything, although this is also true: No other team in the collegiate league is as good as the Blue Eagles when they’re at the top of their game. 

Only Ateneo can beat Ateneo. This is also a fact after the Eagles blew out the Falcons: the defending champions have now demolished every team in the league at least once in Season 81. Plus, for each of their two losses, the winning team had to play a near-perfect game. 

Such was what was required from Adamson once again. Only this time, Ateneo made sure it wouldn’t take place by controlling every aspect of the ball game.

So, to answer the question:

Can anybody beat Ateneo? It can always happen. 

But is it likely? Not. –