Analysis: History repeating and Ateneo has to learn from the Finals loss to UP

Rick Olivares - Philstar.com
Analysis: History repeating and Ateneo has to learn from the Finals loss to UP
Champions at last: The UP Fighting Maroons have finally brought the UAAP championship to Diliman.
Philstar.com / Deejay Dumlao

MANILA, Philippines — Let’s get this out of the way… much deserved championship and congratulations to the UP Fighting Maroons. They did it and how.

And as painful as it is to say, let’s give it that try again in Season 85, Ateneo Blue Eagles. I still remain proud but am hurting just like you.

History repeated itself.

No, not the 13-0 team losing in the final game of the elimination round then in the first game of the finals. That is established.

Two months before Season 84 began, a player within the Blue Eagles asked with ominous foreboding… 

“What can we do to help Jolo, Gian, and BJ graduate with a championship,” I was asked.

The player referred to Season 77 of the juniors tournament in 2016. 

It isn’t like they haven’t won, but a title is always a nice graduation gift to one’s self and the Ateneo community.

Heading into Season 77, Ateneo lost three of their starting five in Matt and Mike Nieto, and Marc Salandanan. Enzo Joson could still play but was knocked out by academics.  

Left to hold the fort were Jolo Mendoza, BJ Andrade, Gian Mamuyac, and Sean Ildefonso. The young players in the squad included SJ Belangel, Jason Credo, RV Berjay, and Dave Ildefonso. 

The Ateneo Blue Eaglets, defending champions, were bounced by De La Salle Zobel, 75-68, in the step-ladder format. 

My answer to that inquiry was to make sure that everyone was on the same page and that everyone believed that they can win it all, that when players are not getting playing time, they should talk to their teammates and make everyone realize that whatever one does – big or small will help to the overall effort.

The cracks were there all right. 

As much as I believe in team play, you still need your stars to stand up and be counted when it is gut check time. 

Ateneo bushwhacked UP in the first game of the season. Since then, the Fighting Maroons had found their verve.

I didn’t expect an undefeated season but was pleasantly surprised when they were on the verge of doing so. 

I thought that NU and UE showed teams how to beat Ateneo… a fast moving team that beat them to the boards and in hustle plays, the physicality of their play. Furthermore, was the inconsistency of the players. 

In the first game of the season – the win over UP – six players did very well – Dave Ildefonso, Angelo Kouame, Raffy Verano, Belangel, Mamuyac, and Mendoza.

Against FEU, it was Dave and Tyler Tio.

Against Adamson, it was Angelo and Tyler. 

Against La Salle, it was Angelo, Dave, and Gian.

Against NU, it was Dave, Angelo, SJ, and Tyler.

Against UE, it was Dave, Angelo, SJ, and Gian. 

Against UST, Tyler and BJ carried the cudgels. 

In the second round against the Green Archers, it was SJ and Gian.

Against the Red Warriors, it was BJ, Angelo, and SJ.

Against the Growling Tigers in a monstrous blowout win, six players scored in double digits. 

Facing the Bulldogs, Dave and Angelo played well.

Against the Soaring Falcons, it was Angelo and Matthew Daves.

Against the Tamaraws, it was Verano and Tio. 

Against the Fighting Maroons to end the elimination round, it was Angelo, SJ, and Dave.

When Season 82 ended, I wrote back then, how Ateneo replaces Thirdy Ravena in the three-spot will spell the success of a four-peat.

Enter Dwight Ramos. Pandemic happens. Exit Dwight Ramos.

Dave Ildefonso returned to Ateneo after spending his first two years of college in NU and showed that he could be that man to spot Ravena. But he was largely inconsistent. And on the big stage, he wilted.

If you look at La Salle after Season 79, they lost Jeron Teng. And that vacancy in the three-spot was too glaring to fill even if they had MVP Ben Mbala. La Salle was also depowered by the loss of Jason Perkins and Julian Sargent. 

Ateneo, after Season 82 lost four-fifths of their starting five, their sixth man, and that guy supposed to replace Ravena. 

When you think about it, the only players left with significant exposure from previous seasons were Kouame, Belangel, and Verano. Everyone else is either new or didn’t get much playing time. So that meant they were on the level with UP.

But UP had more in terms of size and personnel. 

UP’s size, physicality, and defense gave Ateneo fits. But they had the studs who carried their previous teams like Ricci Rivero (La Salle), CJ Cansino (UST), Malik Diouf who was the anti-Kouame (CEU), Carl Tamayo (NU), and Joel Cagulangan (LSGH). 

They had built themselves with big recruit signings but also talented stud transferees like Cansino, Cagulangan, Rivero, and Diouf. Not to mention CJ Catapusan who played well for Adamson. 

Ateneo had come unglued after the Game 1 loss. The team that was so steady in the endgame found themselves in that unfamiliar situation.

One can even postulate that losing to UP at the end of the second round was a fluke. But when they took Game 1, no it wasn’t. They had gained the full measure of Ateneo and found that confidence. 

As for the Blue Eagles, the team that played unselfish ball was unable to mostly find someone who wanted that ball, who needed that ball, and more importantly, shoot that ball. That traditional UP killer in Tyler Tio was silent. 

UP had been knocking on the door to greatness over the last few years. Many would mock Bo Perasol when he moved back to his alma mater to coach and build UP’s program. While Goldwin Monteverde deserves a lot of credit for his outstanding coaching which has been on display since his days at Chiang Kai Shek, Adamson, NU, and now, UP, Perasol had his fingerprints on all the players who are in their current roster. And this victory also belongs to him. 

The Fighting Maroons ended Ateneo’s long win streak and their finals win streak. They are truly deserving champions.

Ateneo just ran into a hungrier and better team. 

And so history was made and history repeated itself sadly for Mendoza, Mamuyac, and Andrade along with graduating players Tio and Verano. 

Ateneo can look to learn the lessons of college basketball history.

Dave Ildefonso had a rough and tumble finals. Disappearing badly in both losses. 

Maybe, he can talk to Enrico Villanueva and how he bounced back from the 2001 finals when he wilted in Game 3 and La Salle had its four-peat. Villanueva came back the next year with a monstrous season and Ateneo ended the Green Archers’ march to a fifth straight title.

SJ Belangel had a trying first season as the lead point guard. 

In Season 78, sans Mamu, Jolo, and BJ, he played alongside Kai Sotto, Credo, Berjay, Joaqui Manuel, and Dave. They lost in the Final Four to FEU who had RJ Abarrientos, LJ Gonzales, Xyrus Torres, Daniel Celzo, and Royce Alforque.

If SJ wants to graduate with a championship (and he did in high school in Season 79), he must elevate his game and play with a manic consistency. 

Ateneo will be left with players who got good playing time in Chris Koon, Dave, Joshua Lazaro, and Daves (not to mention Angelo). How they elevate themselves is anyone’s guess. 

And here’s a shopping list…

They really need to work on those free throws and rebounding. They need to work on the quality of those passes. The search for a proper four spot player and a back-up to Angelo is sorely needed. They need to get taller, faster. I really wish they played faster. So much for playing small ball when you can’t really run. In the end, it was Ateneo chasing the well-spaced shooters of UP.

Ateneo must look to the lessons of 1988 when they were unable to defend their back-to-back titles, 2003 when they lost to FEU in the Finals, in 2013 the season after the five-peat. 

The common denominator is after being unable to defend a title, Ateneo is not able to return to the Big Dance. It took a few years until they had sufficient veterans to lay siege to the title. 

Maybe it is time to break that streak and make history once again.

But by God, what a run. At the end, all you can do is tip your hat to UP and Ateneo for a finals well and agonizingly played. It could have gone either way and that is all you ever ask.

Well deserved, UP. You fought the good fight.

And there’s motivation for you now, Ateneo.


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