MANILA, Philippines – It may be surprising to many, but it was 5 seasons ago when perennial powerhouse Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles last hoisted the UAAP men’s basketball championship. Back then, the Eagles reigned supreme with studs like Kiefer Ravena, Greg Slaughter and Nico Salva – all of whom are now pros in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
Back then, Nigerian athlete Chibueze Ikeh was only about to start his two-year residency requirements in Ateneo. By the time he was eligible to compete in Season 78, Ateneo was still a Final 4 contender but proved to lack enough firepower to push through the Finals.
Last year, the Eagles were finally able to punch their return to basketball’s biggest stage, only to be swept in two games by archrival De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers.
Despite being a prized asset as a foreign player, Ikeh was not seen as a threat on the court by most teams due to his low playing time and middling performances. His collegiate career also got to a rocky start off-court after he was arrested and charged for violating Republic Act 9262, known as the "Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004", on November 5, 2015 after a game at the Araneta Coliseum.
His fortunes didn’t exactly get better the following season. In 14 regular-season appearances in Season 79, he only managed to average 5.4 points and 5.4 rebounds on 16.2 minutes per game. Ateneo insisted on playing G-boy Babilonia instead, who got more playing time despite having worse numbers than the 6’8” foreign big man.
Entering into his last season, however, Ikeh was finally given the permanent starting center position after the graduation of Babilonia. With a bigger role in his hands, Ikeh improved accordingly, establishing himself as an all-around presence in the paint and even extended it out to the 3-point line.
He then received validation for his stellar play after being named the UAAP Press Corps Chooks-to-Go Player of the Week for the first time in his career. In two appearances from September 25 to October 1, Ikeh averaged 12.5 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.5 blocks.
Now being used as a vital cog in Coach Tab Baldwin’s team-oriented system, Ikeh stayed relevant en route to a league-best 13-1 regular season. In the regular season, the big man broke out with averages of 7.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in 20.3 minutes a game – just 4 minutes more than last season.
However, the Eagles’ season was almost unceremoniously ended come playoff time at the hands of 4th-seeded Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws. With 24 seconds left in the 4th quarter of a semifinals do-or-die Game 3, the Eagles found themselves down 75-72 before Isaac Go launched his now-trademark clutch trey.
In the aftermath of the game which they eventually won, Ikeh could be seen breaking down in tears after realizing his UAAP career wasn’t over just yet.
Fast forward to another do-or-die Game 3, this time battling La Salle yet again for their championship, Ikeh decided that he would give it his all. With no more games left ahead of him, Ikeh dropped a statsheet-stuffing gem of 12 points, 13 rebounds with 8 huge offensive boards, 2 assists, a steal and 2 blocks in 27 minutes.
Amid an adoring sea of blue chanting his name, the big man flushed down a punctuation dunk as his final points in the UAAP to put Ateneo up 82-73. Although La Salle bust out a 7-0 run to give Ateneo a scare, the Eagles held on firm, ending the year as the UAAP Season 80 champions.
After two turmoil-filled years, Chibueze Ikeh ended his collegiate career on a high note, hoisting that elusive gold trophy and being showered with praise and confetti. After his final game, the big man was all smiles, but he couldn’t help but feel sad that it’s all over now.
“I’m gonna miss [having] fun with a lot of these guys,” he said. “The hard work and the times we’ve been together, I’m gonna miss that a lot. But most importantly, I’m gonna miss Coach Tab and his knowledge.”
“This season, I kind of disappointed him, but he really didn’t give up on me,” he added. “He’s always been like a father to me – trying to correct all my mistakes and trying to make me believe in myself. Even when I always doubted my abilities, he always supported me and told me I can do it. That means so much. That really means so much to me.”
Assistant Coach Sandy Arespacochaga was quick to dismiss Ikeh’s feeling of disappointment, however.
“Maybe he was saying that because he missed a couple of defensive schemes that we were supposed to do, but really, we’re not disappointed with these guys,” he said. “Even if we lost, we couldn’t be disappointed with their character and their heart.”
There you go, big man. Enjoy the moment now. You’re a champion, and you deserve it. – Rappler.com