The Ateneo Blue Eagles rise to the occasion

Naveen Ganglani

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The Ateneo Blue Eagles rise to the occasion
With one side of the Smart Araneta Coliseum shadowed in green and the other colored in blue, the young, rookie-laden, inexperienced Blue Eagles stepped up to the occasion

MANILA, Philippines – “Ateneo has no edge whatsoever over La Salle.”

“I don’t think any basketball aficionado will give us a chance against La Salle.”

Following his team’s season-opening win over the Adamson Falcons, Coach Bo Perasol held no punches when stating that he felt his team was up against the odds heading into their showdown with the defending UAAP champions.

Whether he was playing some sort of mind game to fuel his club or to provoke complacency out of the De La Salle Green Archers, we’ll never know. But Perasol seemed obstinate in his claim, putting it out there that Ateneo would be playing with house money as it aimed to take down tough and mighty La Salle.

Only Perasol was wrong. 

Dead wrong.

On Sunday, July 20, with one side of the Smart Araneta Coliseum shadowed in green and the other colored in blue – a tradition unlike any other in Philippine sports – the young, rookie-laden, inexperienced Blue Eagles stepped up to the occasion. 

Not only did they show up with the attitude required to take down the defending champions, but they also displayed a certain swagger on the court that left the half in blue at The Big Dome in a ruckus by the time the final buzzer rang, while those in green headed for the exits in deflation and despondency.


The message was sent. The Ateneo Blue Eagles may no longer be the cream of the UAAP crop. Gone are Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Ryan Buenafe. But at the top of the pyramid now is a superstar in Kiefer Ravena who seems hell bent on taking the league by his grip, with a supporting cast locked and loaded to take everyone by surprise and finish higher than anyone could imagine.

Von Pessumal? “Where did he come from?,” asked some baffled fans sporting La Salle green on Sunday. Fonzo Gotladera was a non-factor for the Green Archers years ago, asked to sit on the bench while his talent went unnoticed. But then he moved to Ateneo, did his time, waited for his opportunity, and cashed in on the biggest stage of college sports. Seventeen points and 8 rebounds, each one screaming for retribution against his former team despite his claims that it was just another game.

Arvin Tolentino, that kid was bold and boastful, some critics mentioned. Only in his first two games in the UAAP, the star-in-the-making has given proof that he may turn out better than advertised, which is a scary thought for the seven other schools in the league. He doesn’t get enough rebounds, claimed the naysayers after his debut. So he responded by grabbing 10 in his next game, against DLSU’s giants in the paint, making it more impressive. (RELATED: Arvin Tolentino’s Long Road to Katipunan)

After a slow start, Ateneo's rally down the stretch brought the Blue Eagle fans out of their seats. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Chris Newsome is still as much an athletic stud as there is in college hoops, while Nico Elorde has given the team a calming presence at the point guard position. The Blue Eagles already look so devastating, and that’s still without the other top-tier rookie recruits getting a chance to display their game.

Their record now stands at 2-0. And regardless of who comes next, the confidence from their recent, message-sending victory will resonate within this team.

“Kasi Ateneo-La Salle, rivalry talaga yan. Tapos La Salle, powerhouse. Kami, puro rookies kami. So yung mindset talaga namin is to win. Buhos lahat nang meron kayo para sa team. Lalo na for a young team katulad namin na 2-0, to beat La Salle, yung experience napakaganda,” Tolentino told Rappler in an exclusive interview after the game.

(Ateneo-La Salle is a rivalry. And the latter is a powerhouse. Our team is filled with rookies, so our mindset was really to win, put out all effort for the team. For us to be 2-0 and beat La Salle, the experience gained is great.)

“It’s huge. We’re 2-0, they’re the defending champions and they’re down two games. So that’s huge. That’s a huge separation in the win-loss column,” added Pessumal, who torched Juno Sauler’s defense jumper after jumper for a career-high 21 points.

Pessumal was the Robin to Ravena’s Batman in high school. Prospects at that time, both led Ateneo to championships year in and year out in the Junior UAAP division. While Ravena ascended to his King Eagle throne not long into his collegiate career, Pessumal took a back seat, waiting for the moment to rise where he could carve a name for himself with the big boys.

“I’m trying to fit in the shoes of very good players – si Ryan (Buenafe), si Juami (Tiongson). I think it’s about time, it’s (my) fourth year,” said Pessumal, who’s averaging 14.5 PPG this season.

Maybe he no longer has to be in the shadow of his star-studded teammate. With a stroke so pure and deadly, the Blue Eagles swingman is threatening to break through, bidding up to the potential many saw out of him in high school.

“He kept us in the game,” Ravena commented on his friend’s outburst after the game, in which DLSU raced off to an early 13-4 lead. “He was the Von Pessumal that I know since high school. I wasn’t surprised of what he can do. It’s just a matter of consistency for every one of us.”

Pessumal’s eruption created more space for Ravena to operate, and the results were stupendous: 29 points, a new career high, a barrage of threes in the fourth quarter that will be remembered in ADMU sports lore, and most importantly, a win.

“It’s enough motivation that it’s against La Salle. Whatever you think about, it’s a rivalry that has existed ever since. It’s enough motivation not just for me but for everyone to step up,” Ravena stated.

And everyone did. Everyone followed the Phenom’s lead.

“To be honest, sabi nga lang namin dikit lang natin para may chance tayo manalo,” he said about his club’s wide margin of victory. “Yung ganito, medyo malaki lamang namin, nagulat kami lahat. Pero, panalo, panalo talaga. Hindi kami magrereklamo.”

(We just said that we should keep the game close so we would have a chance to win. This win, where we won by a wide margin, we got surprised. But we won. We won’t complain about that.)

The secret recipe?

“Yun yung magdadala saamin – yung puso, yung effort.”

(That’s what carried us – heart and effort.)

“Puso.” “Effort.” 

Terms that can be associated with how the club’s center played on Sunday.

Kiefer Ravena shoots a look toward the crowd after knocking down a clutch three pointer. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

“Inspired si Fonzo, hindi ko alam kung bakit (I don’t know why),” Ravena joked about Gotladera’s performance after the game, the kind of performance that would push the Blue Eagles to an even higher threshold if it could take place more often. “If we can have him playing like that every time, every single time, it’s a good plus for us.”

And if Gotladera doesn’t exhibit the same production again, he’ll always have the memory of torching his former team.

“Fonzo was huge today. His presence alone impacted the game in so many ways offensively and defensively. He was grabbing rebounds [and] changing shots. He changed a lot of shots, which was so big for us because we were able to get a lot of rebounds, we were able to run, we were able to score,” Pessumal said about his teammate.

They did all of that. They answered every La Salle rally with one of their own. For a team laden with newcomers, their response to an early deficit was impressive, to say the least. Tough shot after another, the Blue Eagles converted over and over again, making the Green Archers pay for being silly enough to leave the team’s snipers wide open. And when it was down to shutting the door on the Green Archers, the best player on the court stepped up to the occasion, showing a killer mentality that makes Ateneo a nightmare matchup in close games that go down the wire.

Ravena is a superstar, one that is motivated to make up for a lost year in 2013. And if his crew stays on point like it has for the past two games, the Blue Eagles will be capable of beating any other team in the league. This squad has talent from top to bottom, and with the confidence it earned brought about by embarrassing the defending champions, they have now become even more lethal. –

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