The Ateneo Blue Eagles were on top of the world.
Even before the UAAP returned, Season 84 already felt like a foregone conclusion. The Blue Eagles were easily tagged as the favorites to win it all by most basketball pundits, and honestly, they had all the reason to crown the blue and white as early as February 2022.
While Thirdy Ravena, the Nieto twins, Isaac Go, William Navarro, and Adrian Wong were painful losses, they had Gilas stalwarts Dave Ildefonso, SJ Belangel, and Angelo Kouame to lead the way for this new group. The rich also got richer over the pandemic, with the additions of Fil-Am guard Chris Koon and former Blue Eaglets Joshua Lazaro and Forthsky Padrigao. Of course, they also had Coach Tab Baldwin, whose brand of dominance shook the minds of opposing UAAP teams.
The Blue Eagles felt inevitable and their opening game against UP further solidified that feeling. Outside of a lackluster finish, Ateneo cruised to a good win against the talented Fighting Maroons. No shocking headlines were written that day. Ateneo and winning felt like a perfect marriage at that point.
The feeling continued to linger. There may have been some slip-ups in end games, notably against FEU and La Salle, and the NU Bulldogs even gave them a huge scare during the first round, but for the most part, these Blue Eagles continued to be the closest thing the league had to Thanos. Teams tried to look for a Nano Gauntlet that would snap Ateneo back to reality but to no avail. It even felt like they were getting stronger. The only option to stop this madness would have been to send Ateneo to the PBA to face the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.
That was until UP decided they weren’t going to entertain any of those offers for the Blue Eagles. Turns out they had the Nano Gauntlet.
During the last game of the regular season, the Fighting Maroons came out guns a blazing and mounted an 18-point lead against the Blue Eagles. While Ateneo came back to get the game down the wire, UP definitely had something in their hands with how they played.
By the end of the game, they had more than something; an achievement no team had reached since 2018: a win versus the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
Ateneans brushed off the loss and called it necessary. Other fans even went as far as to call the win by the Fighting Maroons lucky. Seven days later, they’d learn that win by UP wasn’t luck. UP would pull off the feat again, beating Ateneo in overtime after an epic collapse by the Blue Eagles.
Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
Scroll up and read the fourth and fifth paragraphs of this piece.
Some slip-ups in the end game.
A huge scare.
The writing was on the wall and we chose to ignore it. The Fighting Maroons grabbed our heads and forced us to read it.
Those two games last May 1 and 8 exposed the biggest weaknesses of the Blue Eagles, the first of which, was something the smartest basketball fans should have expected: inexperience in the clutch.
Here’s the thing; any elite couple would tell you there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. Any marriage is bound to have fights between two parties. Others even go as far as to say that if you don’t fight with your partner, then a larger problem is likely looming in the background. That’s what happened to the Blue Eagles. Their relationship with winning was so perfect that it felt like they weren’t being challenged anymore. The moment they were punched in the mouth, they didn’t know how to respond.
This was most evident in Game 1 of the Finals. With Malick Diouf fouled out, the time was right for the Blue Eagles to pounce on the interior defense of the Fighting Maroons. The problem was, they went match-up hunting and ran Angelo Kouame post-ups…
… even though Angelo Kouame wasn’t what you’d call an elite isolation post-up player (he’s good! You just would prefer not to run a heavy dose of post-ups in today’s basketball, unless the one posting up is Junemar f***in Fajardo). The series of Ange post-ups ended in the most tragic way, with Ange going iso against Carl Tamayo from the corner three. It ended exactly how you’d expect it to end: not good.
The second weakness was something fans did not expect at all: lack of talent relative to the competition. The Blue Eagles are talented, make no mistake about it. The Fighting Maroons, however, arguably had a more talented group during the Season 82 Finals. The Blue Eagles may have gotten richer, but the Fighting Maroons also stacked up their deck of cards. They’re so talented in fact, that others are already arguing that their championship win may be the start of a dynasty.
While the triumvirate of SJ-Dave-Ange is probably the best in the league, the rest of Ateneo’s frontcourt is slim compared to UP’s. The Fighting Maroons’ frontcourt of Malick Diouf, Carl Tamayo, and Zavier Lucero chomped up the Blue Eagles’ big men. That difference in talent, size, and ability in the post, made it difficult for Ateneo to properly run their offense and made defending a chore. The Blue Eagles were pushed and it wasn’t just because they lacked experience. The Fighting Maroons also happened to be really damn good.
While most outlets will remember this series for Game 3’s epic destiny-sealing finish for the Fighting Maroons, the Blue Eagles should remember what happened and how they felt during Game 1 of that series. After years of invincibility, they suddenly felt vulnerable. The perfect marriage they supposedly had with winning was suddenly gone. This was a wake-up call they needed, and they got it in the most painful of ways.
Here’s the beautiful thing with sports: even when seasons end and championships are lost, athletes always find the ability to bounce back. The comeback can be even sweeter when the previous failure you experienced caused an immense amount of pain.
Today, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are forced to go down from the hill and humble themselves. They’re no longer on top of the world.
Tomorrow, they’re given an opportunity so few teams in the UAAP are provided; a shot at revenge with a complete stack of star players and then some.
SJ Belangel, Angelo Kouame, a solid supporting cast, plus new recruits, all hungry for revenge. That’s a group I wouldn’t want to face if I were the rest of the UAAP.
(Photos by John Oranga; artwork by Mikko Santos)