With 7:31 left in Game 2, the result of the game, and of the Finals, was still in the balance. The UST was about to complete a comeback from an early double-digit hole, following a timely third quarter storm led by first-year sensations Rhenz Abando and Mark Nonoy. Ateneo’s advantage was cut to a single point after allowing two straight inside looks to begin the final period. With only one Blue Eagle starter on the floor, the the rest of the team reeling, the Growling Tigers were in the perfect position to pounce.
But, with 7:31 seconds left in Game 2, that was also the perfect moment for someone to come up big for Ateneo. That player was second-year point guard, SJ Belangel.
As he surveyed the court from the top of the key, he saw Isaac Go coming down from the left wing and he immediately knew what he needed to do. After Go set a giant screen that caught both Dave Ando and Zach Huang, Belangel saw an inch of daylight as the two defenders rushed towards him.
And in the blink of an eye, the ball escaped his hands from deep.
Belangel used that moment to announce that he was ready to lead the Blue Eagles for the rest of his years in Loyola Heights.
“For me, it was just a matter of reading the defense. The defense went under so as I team we practice that every day. Everytime a [defender] goes under you have a license to shoot so I pulled the trigger then ayun, boom.” says SJ with a small smile on his face.
Little did he know, but Belangel’s shot would be the catalyst which eventually allowed Ateneo to seal a legendary 16-0 season. Despite their unrelenting efforts, the Growling Tigers would not be able to catch up with the Blue Eagles after that big boy shot. Ateneo fended off UST all the way to the final buzzer.
As the Blue Eagles cemented another dynasty, the trend of having a reliable floor general who stands out in every successful Ateneo team continues.
In 2001, LA Tenorio made his presence known to the entire basketball community when he dropped 30 points in Game 3 of the Season 64 Finals. Despite losing in that series, he was able to avenge his performance with a championship ring in the following season against their archrivals, the La Salle Green Archers.
After Tenorio went down from the hill in 2006, Season 69 saw the entrance of one of Ateneo’s most heralded point guards, Chris Tiu. Tiu would lead his team to the Finals in his sophomore year which started Ateneo’s fabled 5-peat championship streak before being called up to the Smart Gilas Program in 2008.
Fast forward to the Tab Baldwin era, the conclusion of Matt Nieto’s storied career in the collegiate ranks would only call for another gifted playmaker to fill in for his spot, as history dictated.
After watching this year’s Finals, it was clear who the next heir apparent was going to be. The departure of the five Ateneo seniors will usher in a new era which points to Belangel being at the helm of the team. He’s been the embodiment of how Ateneo has been playing since Baldwin took over — servant-like.
Despite seeing diminished minutes compared to his high school stint, Belangel always looked sharp off the bench, no matter when he was deployed. He played with a certain essence that prioritizes winning, no matter what it takes. As proof of that, he joined Abando as the only bench player to reach the top ten in total +/- in the league. Although he has a natural inclination to put his teammates first, that doesn’t mean he can’t light it up on his own. Belangel has always been equipped with the offensive repertoire to make big shots. But more importantly, in only his second year on the team, he already has an unending stream of confidence to actually take these big shots.
Add all of that to the kind of inspired play he’s shown throughout the entire season, it appears that Belangel has proven himself ready to continue the lineage of the great Ateneo point guards for years to come.