Ateneo gives U.P. a lesson on UAAP’s biggest stage



MANILA, Philippines – Remember those days as a kid when you wondered for so long when you would finally beat your big brother at pick-up? It was dreadful, wasn’t it? Being the one who was easily bullied near the rim, or too short to shoot over the outstretched arms of your kuya, who somehow blocked everything? 

Yeah, it sucked. Big time. But still, it was valuable. It was those defeats, as embarrassing as they were, that molded you into a stronger character as you grew up. The losses your big brother handed out, each and every one of them, was an experience that made you want to become better and hungrier to eventually win.

And years later, whether you’d like to admit it or not, that same thing might have led you into the person you are today, with everything you do in your life. 

On Saturday, December 1, the Ateneo Blue Eagles taught the UP Fighting Maroons what it takes to win at the biggest and grandest stage of UAAP basketball. Sorry, UP, but you’re no longer facing Adamson. This new opponent is a deadlier machine – one that runs on efficiency, tenacity, and consistency. They are not rattled by shouts of “UP Fight,” nor are they going to show any sign of doubt at the hint of a Maroons offensive explosion. Give us your best shot, the Blue Eagles often challenge, and we’ll hit you back harder.

Whether it be the Mall of Asia Arena or Smart Araneta Coliseum, once you enter an Ateneo game with the stakes as high as they were on Saturday, you will immediately feel the intensity radiating from the crowd in Blue and White. The number in Maroon outnumbered those wearing the colors of the Blue Eagles, but that wasn’t going to be a reason for the Ateneo faithful to be drowned out in UP chants. At times, “GET THAT BALL!” was the only sound that could be heard.

"It was more of experience. They were just used to playing in the Finals. That’s their advantage," said Juan Gomez De Liaño after the game.

The Blue Eagles came out swinging. Like he did against FEU, Thirdy Ravena had that sense of urgency in the early goings. Ateneo wanted to score a knockout blow and end UP in the same fashion. The Maroons, however, were unwavering. Stubborn as they’ve been since the beginning of this magical run, they were unwilling to go down without making a comeback. So here came Jun Manzo, the Gomez De Liaño brothers, and the rest of the team, bringing the fight to the defending champions. 

It didn’t take long for the theme of the Battle of Katipunan to turn into System vs. Will. Here was one team that is as well-oiled a machine as we’ve ever seen in college basketball, simple and accurate with their actions. On the other side, the underdog who some believe doesn’t belong in this stage, using the rally cry of their crowd as fuel to secure triumph.

For the first 3 quarters, both sides were trading blow for blow, never falling too far behind to be put in legit danger. The Blue Eagles held control for most of the period, but Manzo, the GDL brothers, and these Fighting Maroons kept tugging on Ateneo’s cape, showing no signs of giving up. Even as MVP Bright Akhuetie fell to the floor and was unable to rise, UP did not hand the game to the reigning champs despite having the excuse to become deflated after watching their main guy get hurt. 

“UP Fight!” no longer became just a battle cry; it was what was taking place.

And then, it happened. 

The 4th quarter arrived, and every team that ever became a champion in any type of league knows that’s winning time. The Blue Eagles baited the Fighting Maroons all game to risk momentum by attempting home run plays, but Bo Perasol coached his guys well enough that they continued to play their own style without getting too enamored by high-risk, high-reward decisions. But in the game within the game, Tab Baldwin and his staff were plotting their own defensive strategy that would eventually seal them the win. 

Akhuetie had his near Willis Reed moment by returning in the 4th period, much to the excitement of an energized UP crowd, but at that point he had scored less than double-digits and had to regain his momentum after being stretchered off the court. Desiderio was also having a tough time putting the ball in the hole, going scoreless in the first half and making only two baskets for the entire game. 

Ateneo dared UP’s other guys like Manzo and Diego Dario to beat them. The Blue Eagles also dared the other Maroons to hurt them from the outside, which to the dismay of Baldwin, they did, but in the process found a way to throw Bright and Paul off their rhythm, which was something the Soaring Falcons were unable to do. 

By the time UP got to the crucial moments of the final quarter in Game 1 of the finals – a situation no Fighting Maroon has been in the last 32 years – the boys looked to Desiderio and Akhuetie to provide an answer on offense, but unfortunately for University of the Philippines, the two had been thrown off their mojo throughout the game by the Eagles. The result was an Anxious Maroons club who made rushed decisions that were taken advantage of by their more experienced opponents. 

Matt Nieto, who had 27 points in the best game of his life, was hurting UP with simple but precise decisions. He found cracks in the defense to get openings for 3-balls. He used hesitation moves to get to the paint and score on floaters. He found the open man when surrounded by multiple Maroons. He made big defensive stops that were momentum-builders for his team. 

And how about Thirdy Ravena, huh? 21 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. You know what may even be the most impressive part? The defensive job he did on Desiderio, whose opportunities for clean looks to score was much less frequent compared to the Final Four.

You know who knows a thing or two about life-lessons from painful losses to kuya? This guy. While Kiefer, an Ateneo legend of his own, played more like Kobe, Thirdy has always been more LeBron. No, he might not be the guy who drains a game-winning shot at the buzzer, or scores on a fadeaway over 3 defenders. You know who he is? 

He’s the guy who will drive to the rim and demand multiple guys get on his way, because otherwise it’s a crowd-awakening dunk. Even when you do that, he has the ability to kick the ball out to one of Ateneo’s many great shooters. Thirdy is the player who will shut down your team’s best player. He’s the guy who will have chasedown blocks and grab rebounds against bigger guys. He’s the Eagle who often personifies the beliefs of a team that call themselves “Blue Eagles Band of Brothers.” 

This team doesn’t get rattled, no matter the opponent or crowd behind them. 

That’s why regardless of what the Maroons threw their way, the Blue Eagles found the perfect moment in the final minutes to “flip the switch” and put their opponents down for good to gain first blood. 

UP’s in penalty situation? Attack them aggressively to get to the line. See that they’re having a tough time getting to their sets? Jump into passing lanes for turnovers that lead to easy points.  Notice that they keep getting lost on defense? Then keep swinging the ball until you find an open man. Is it the sexy way to win? No, but it sure as hell is efficient. 

That’s not to say UP was an easy prey, because these Maroons absolutely made life hell for the Eagles during stretches. It’s not usual for Ateneo to be out-worked by an opponent on the court, although University of the Philippines was able to do so through sheer will and ferocity. 

"We really didn’t want them in the final," Baldwin said after the game.

"Now they’re a really, really tough opponent. [They're] much more determined, much more cohesive."

If UP goes down on Wednesday, they’re not going to do so before giving Ateneo all they’ve got. The Blue Eagles are close, and they can feel another trophy soon arriving. Chances are, they will be holding it soon. But if by some miracle the Maroons figure out a way to steal Game 2 and then make Game 3 a do-or-die where everything is on the line and anything can happen, I’ll tell you how many people will be surprised:

No one. Because University of the Philippines has proven they can turn the impossible to reality.

But on Saturday, the reality was this:

Ateneo was the big brother who played the role of teaching the soon-to-be star what it will take to have all the glory. 

And class was in session. –