The Ateneo Blue Eagles swept their way into their third straight title after vanquishing the UST Growling Tigers, 86-79 in Game Two of the Finals on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Philstar.com/Erwin Cagadas
Ateneo Blue Eagles: The Pursuit of Perfection
Rick Olivares (Philstar.com) - November 21, 2019 - 3:02pm

MANILA, Philippines – After UST Growling Tiger guard Renzo Subido threw up the last field goal attempt — that was short — of Game Two of the 2019 UAAP men’s basketball finals, Ateneo center Angelo Kouame grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Gian Mamuyac, who pitched it to Matt Nieto then back to Kouame and finally Thirdy Ravena. Adrian Wong ran up to the right side just in case they needed to pass the ball to him as Ateneo ran off the remaining seconds of the game. 

Ravena flung the ball high up with two Growling Tigers looking up. The final score read: 86-79. The Blue Eagles were champions. Three-peat champions in the perfect season — 16-0.

The year 2016 was the summer of discontent for Tab Baldwin and the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

In April of that year, the Blue Eagles lost CJ Perez, Arvin Tolentino, Hubert Cani, Jerie Pingoy, Kemark Cariño, Clint Doliguez and John Apacible — all to academics. Tolentino and Pingoy were a part of the rotation, Doliguez and Apacible had potential while Perez led Ateneo Team B to two titles. In the two games Perez played for Ateneo during the summer tourney, he showed that he would be a force for the blue and white.

The storm wasn’t over. Three months later, the Philippine men’s basketball team suffered two painful defeats at the hands of France and New Zealand for the last slot to the Rio Olympic men’s basketball qualifiers. And Baldwin was then removed as Gilas head coach. 

La Salle, behind Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng, pulverized the competition. 

The remnants of the Blue Eagles soldiered on and ruined La Salle’s moment of perfection as the Green Archers finished the eliminations 13-1 — the only loss was to Ateneo. The Blue Eagles joined the Green Archers in the finals but the latter was just too much to stop. The green and white celebrated, and they figured they would at least get a three-peat for their efforts.

Baldwin said then that he needed to rebuild the team, not in personnel, but in the fundamentals and their approach to the game. 

Each and every player had something.

Matt and Mike Nieto were winners in high school. But the knock on Matt coming into the college ranks was he had no jumpshot. Yet, he has become a deadly shooter (aside from a backcourt general) since. And he, along with SJ Belangel, Thirdy Ravena and Adrian Wong, knocked down crucial triples in Game Two against UST.

Mike Nieto was said to be overweight and too small for his cherished power forward position. But he had reinvented himself into a hustle man and was the team’s leader. He scored on a tough layup and rejected Brent Paraiso’s reverse lay-up that preserved a 65-60 Ateneo lead. 

When Thirdy Ravena came out of high school, he was said to be light years away in terms of impact when compared to older brother Kiefer. Not a winner they said. He tugged the Blue Eaglets to the finals but lost to Cani and NU. When he moved up to the seniors division, the Nietos helped Ateneo win the juniors crown. Thirdy was even knocked out for a season due to grades. Yet, here he was at the final buzzer —  a three-time seniors champion and three-time finals Most Valuable Player.

Isaac Go was said to be too slow and even clumsy. Just a big kid who happened to be playing basketball, said some. Yet he transformed under Baldwin, made the Gilas Cadets lineup, and had become a very good 3-point shooter, a smart player (to complement his academic smarts) and a leader in that locker room.

Will Navarro was unhappy with his situation in his first year in San Beda. He transferred to Ateneo, battled confidence problems, and had become such an invaluable player in the absence of Raffy Verano. 

Years ago, I postulated that Navarro should be starting. A parent of one of the Blue Eagles asked why I thought that. I answered, “because he is tall enough and skilled enough to guard multiple positions. He can shoot and defend. All he needs is a confidence booster.”

Who from the blue side wasn’t proud when he was one of two Ateneans feted special awards (the AXA Know You Can Player of the Season).

In Season 78, Adrian Wong botched a potential game-winning layup in the Final Four game against FEU. Following that game, he sobbed on the bench and the two Tamaraws who denied him that basket — Roger Pogoy and Mac Belo — came over to console him. Worse, he was out because of a knee injury when Ateneo won its first title under Tab Baldwin in Season 80. He had come back and became a better defensive player, returned as a starter, and now finished his college career with two titles. 

Following the summer tourneys of 2017, Ateneo had become a thoroughly different team. They slipped under the radar and come the UAAP began destroying teams. Since Season 80, this team has won eight out of eight championships in all local tournaments they have participated in. Not even the five-peat teams of Norman Black — which won a total of 16 titles in that span — won many in consecutive fashion. 

For decades, Ateneo had come close to an undefeated season, but never attained it.

Eighty years ago, the Blue Eagle became the official mascot and moniker of the Ateneo sports teams. That was also the year where Raul Manglapus unveiled his song, “Blue Eagle the King” and that first ever team of Blue Eagles, coached by former player Primitivo Martinez, had swept the elimination round only to lose in the finals against La Salle. A rivalry was born that year and made white hot when La Salle supporters chucked fried chickens outside the Ateneo campus in Padre Faura.

Two years later, another former Ateneo hero in Bing Ouano led the Blue Eagles into the NCAA field. They were undefeated in the preseason and were 4-0 in the NCAA when Letran waylaid them. It was thought that it would down spiral for Ateneo, instead they went on a tear and won the championship.

In 1969, that great team of Ateneo that featured Francis Arnaiz, Joy Cleofas, Marte Samson, and Ricky Palou were nearing an undefeated season when Letran sent them crashing in the second round. They bounced back and won the championship. And in a moment that mirrored Baldwin’s 2016 team, lost eight players immediately after due to academics. 

From 1975-77, the Blue Eagles were chasing immortality when each time the San Beda Red Lions beat them in the final game of the second round. Ateneo did win the 1975 and 1976 crowns. But there would be no third time in 1977 as the Blue Eagles following its championship loss to the Red Lions, packed up and left the NCAA for the UAAP.

And that leads us back to this year’s champions. 

They are a perfect eight-for-eight in local tournaments since Season 80. But how big was this title? It has to hurt UST in more ways than one.

During the five-peat, they overtook the four-peat feats of UST and La Salle. Sorry but that seven-peat of UE doesn’t count because they shared on title with UST (what kind of crap is that). This team also went two games better than UST’s 14-0 record of 1993 to finish 16-0.

And thus far, Baldwin gained a 2-1 edge over nemesis Aldin Ayo in head-to-head championship meetings. 

This Season 82 crown is Ateneo’s 11th in the UAAP and together with the 14 won in the NCAA, that makes it 25 overall. No local college team has as many.

The numbers are huge and maybe for some to celebrate and even gloat over.

But what best illustrates this feat was in the post-game press conference where all five graduating Blue Eagles — Matt and Mike Nieto, Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong —spoke about the achievement. Baldwin got emotional as he spoke at great length of coaching these players and how it changed him as a coach, as a father figure, and a friend. 

Mike Nieto spoke of how their father, Jet, himself a former Ateneo champion in both the high school and college ranks, continuously pushed them and motivated them to match what he had won. With the three-peat, they had done one better than their dad. “But we love him Jet Nieto) even more,” quipped Mike.

Waiting in the wings just outside the media room with mischief in their eyes were SJ Belangel and Gian Mamuyac; both eager to douse water and whatnot on the six. In essence, it was the now the past, yet also the present, and the future.

It is the perfect moment.

ATENEO EAGLES UAAP
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