Ateneo’s long, grueling road to the UAAP Championship

Andrei Caracut had just made a three-pointer off the Ben Mbala screen, and all of a sudden, the De La Salle Green Archers had cut down the lead to two points after facing a 10-point deficit just a few minutes ago. With 48 seconds left and a title on the line, the Ateneo Blue Eagles immediately tried to draw up a play. The stage was set for someone from Ateneo to take a big shot in the grandest stage of them all. The question then was who would take it?

That’s always been the question when it’s come to big moments in Ateneo lore. WHO takes the shot? Never has it ever been asked about HOW the shot is taken, since there was almost always an answer for that. Someone would go isolation from the top of the key, wait the clock out then make a move. From LA Tenorio, to Chris Tiu, to Ryan Buenafe and just recently Kiefer Ravena, the Blue Eagles would always have a person to own the ball to create something for the team during the clutch.

As the Blue Eagles inbounded, the ball suddenly found itself in the hands of Matt Nieto. It made sense for Matty Ice to try and finish things off, as he’s shown the capability to hit big shots in crunch time. He held on to the ball from the perimeter with Aljun Melecio shadowing him to try and burn the clock. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Nieto finally made his move with a quick crossover from right to left to try and elude Melecio.

With how things were going, the initial action called for Nieto to try and take it to the hole for a possible dish out to Anton Asistio in the corner, or even a drop pass to either Isaac Go or Mike Nieto down low. But with the La Salle defense staying put and not gambling, he stopped near the left wing and passed it to Thirdy Ravena. Almost immediately, Go set the screen for Thirdy Ravena, and the defense switched. Ravena drove towards Mbala, stopped, turned, and passed it off to Go.

Catch. Pull-up. Swish. Cash.

The Ateneo gallery was in absolute mayhem.

That very play captured the entire story of this Ateneo Blue Eagles team. This championship wasn’t a result of one man’s heroic efforts. It was the entire team chipping in, as small as those contributions may be to try and bring the championship back to Loyola Heights.

But in order to get to where they are now, the Blue Eagles had to go through a long and grueling process that started right when Kiefer Ravena graduated out of Ateneo.

The older Ravena’s graduation signaled the need to rebuild for the Ateneo Blue Eagles basketball program. No longer did the team have any clear-cut hero to lead them to a championship like they did in years past. It wasn’t a matter of the team lacking in pure talent. What the team lacked were proven pieces who could help lead the team the next season. Back then, the Ateneo basketball program was in limbo.

Management made its move and hired Tab Baldwin to take on the reins as the head coach of the Blue Eagles. With that move, step one of the process was complete. Just make a move. Any move, and move forward rather than stay still.

Hiring a coach that’s proven himself in the international stage is a way to get things started for the rebuild of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Somehow, the Blue Eagles had someone who not only could fast track the development of their budding stars Arvin Tolentino and CJ Perez as their go-to guys, but change the culture surrounding its basketball program as well.

Tolentino and Perez wound up leaving the school because of academic problems, which then made things a lot harder for Coach Baldwin. He wasn’t taking over a team, he was facing a full rebuild from scratch. With the two projected best players of the Ateneo program out of the fray, everything truly was going to be different from before. Different program. Different system. Different mentality. Different everything.

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From having a team that needed a little tweaking to try and match La Salle, he suddenly had a group of players that did not look fit to make it to even the Final Four. Having a selfless system doesn’t automatically mean that talent is thrown out of the table. You still need talent and skill to win basketball games. It’s a matter of blending those two things with smart basketball. Coach Baldwin was supposed to do that, integrate the talent into his system. But at the start of the rebuild, the proven talent and skill everyone was looking for still wasn’t that obvious.

We all know what happened next. Coach Baldwin trains his boys, they go on a boot camp in Baler and all of a sudden a mysterious hashtag called #BEBOB comes out in social media the next day. It’s easy to frame this as “Coach Tab working his magic once more!” But the more responsible way of looking at everything is this: “Coach Tab did work his magic.”

He pushed the Blue Eagles, and the players responded with absolute aplomb. It didn’t show immediately with the number of times they got blown out by the Green Archers during the preseason. The fruits of all their hard work finally showed itself as they managed to make it to the Finals in Season 79, and going toe-to-toe with a monster DLSU team.

Lots of people praised the Blue Eagles for their inspired performance last season. The Blue Eagles have proven that disciplined team basketball had a chance in a country where individual talent shines brighter. But that’s not all the Blue Eagles wanted to achieve.

That would be like being saying Gohan going Super Saiyan 1 as the be all end all of what he was to be as a Saiyan. The fact of the matter was, Super Saiyan 1 wasn’t going to beat Cell. He needed to be better. Gohan went through arduous training and put in intense hard work in order to reach that next level.

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After last year’s runner-up finish, the Blue Eagles just did that. Armed with experience and knowledge of the pressures of a UAAP Finals, the Blue Eagles continued with their routine of going to Baler and improving on their skills.

In the process, they got to know each other better as a team, recognizing each other’s strengths even better. It wasn’t as simple as Ravena lifted a billion pounds worth of steel in order to be able to face up against stronger forwards. Or where Matt Nieto shooting hundreds of jump shots to be a threat from beyond the arc.

(READ: Matt Nieto showed this season that he’s more than just intangibles)

The Blue Eagles got better, because they pushed each other to get better as well. When Coach Baldwin would berate the team for making the wrong read on offence or defense, they helped learn from that mistake. They pulled each other up and improved not only individually but as a collective.

It wasn’t evident during the preseason, but there were clearly big things  in store for the Blue Eagles.

When Season 80 started the Blue Eagles went on an absolute tear. They were undefeated for the first 13 games of the eliminations. Questions of “Is this team talented enough?” and “Can they actually compete for a championship?” were squashed during that run. This Blue Eagles team was legit. It looked like they Coach Baldwin would fulfill his promise of bringing the championship back to Loyola Heights come 2017.

But the questions still remained, as Ateneo entered the pressure-packed Final Four: “Who would take the last shot for the Blue Eagles?”

Season 80 proved that WHO, wasn’t the correct question to answer. For this iteration of the Blue Eagles, it didn’t matter who would take that last shot. It could be Kris Porter for all they cared, the team had trust in anyone to take that final shot. The true question was, “HOW would the team take the last shot?”

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This brings it all back to Go’s Championship clinching three. A lot of credit belongs to Go for making the shot. But Mike Nieto and Asistio also deserve props for serving as effective decoys in their offensive set. Matt Nieto and Ravena also deserve some credit as it was the two players who initiated the play for the Blue Eagles.

So, HOW will Ateneo take the last shot? By working as a team and running their system to the tee. Mike Nieto and Asistio were threats, Ravena and Matt Nieto pulled away the defense and Go confidently took the shot.

Winning this year’s Championship did not happen overnight for Ateneo. It was a rigorous process that started all the way two years ago, when Coach Baldwin was hired to lead a program that was in limbo. Fast forward to 2017, and Coach Baldwin kept his promise of winning one for Ateneo in this year.

Is the process complete? Of course not. It never ends. Just because the Blue Eagles defeated its Cell in La Salle this season, doesn’t mean it ends there. Opposing teams will get better to try and knock the crown off the head of the Blue Eagles. There’s always Super Saiyan 3. Or 4. Maybe even Super Saiyan God.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles showed the beauty of their process with this championship victory. Expect them do the same for Season 81.

(READ: The Ateneo-La Salle rivalry is just as heated as ever)

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