With 4:57 remaining at the end of regulation, the scoreboard at the Blue Eagle Gym read: Ateneo 57 NU 61. The Ateneo Blue Eaglets found themselves needing to overcome a four-point deficit versus the NU Bullpups to make it back to the Finals after four years. They had given up the 14 point lead they wheld during the third quarter, with the Bullpups putting a chokehold on their offense to the start of the fourth quarter.
It was an all too familiar situation despite the differing circumstances. It felt like February 17, 2017, when the Blue Eaglets were also a game away from making it back to the Finals.
The Blue Eaglets found themselves chasing the FEU Baby Tamaraws, on the verge of losing their shot at a championship that season. They had led by as much as 12 points during the early goings of the game, but that was all for naught. It was suddenly a slugfest between two title contenders. There was still five minutes left on the clock, enough time for the talented Blue Eaglets to figure something out. Time was on their side.
Expected to lead the Blue Eaglets was runner-up in the MVP Race, SJ Belangel. It was the kind of stage perfect for a player of his caliber to perform. High-stakes, high-pressure, with a big crowd to boot. The platform was set for SJ to have his signature moment.
He was the man initiating the offense during those last five minutes. However, SJ’s teammates looked passive and shell-shocked at the situation they were facing. The Blue Eaglets were mostly running basic, four out-one in dribble drive sets with SJ initiating the attack. The problem was, every time SJ would kick out, the receiver (often Dave Ildefonso or Jason Credo) would hesitate with their attack. They were in rhythm to take jumpers, but they’d often pause for a split second and decide to drive it inside. The result was a clogged paint for Ateneo, zero spacing, and SJ also became hesitant with what to do with the offense. It would go on and on like a broken record until they just decided to pound the ball to Kai Sotto in the hopes of making a comeback.
Time was on their side during that stretch run. Experience and execution, however, were not.
— Karlo Lovenia (@karlolovenia) February 17, 2017
Their attempt at pounding the ball to their 7-footer was too late. As SJ’s attempt at a full court heave hit the top of the board, the separation between FEU and Ateneo became even more clear. It wasn’t just the differing levels of maturity between both teams. FEU was jumping for joy, ecstatic at their opportunity at a ring. On the other side, Ateneo was miserable, immediately in tears as the pain of ending the season slowly sunk in. SJ did not get his signature moment. Instead, his team faced doubt, criticisms and questions.
Fast forward to February 11, 2018 and the Blue Eaglets found themselves facing a similar predicament. I only say similar, because the circumstances aren’t entirely the same. A loss would not have ended the season of the Blue Eaglets, they would have just been dealt their first loss of the season. But you could feel the nervous energy around the Blue Eagle Gym. The bench mob and crowd of the NU Bullpups jumped for joy with every made basket, seemingly inching closer towards victory.
The Ateneo side, on the other hand, held their hands together, praying to the basketball gods to give their team the will to comeback from this four-point deficit they were facing. Prayers, sadly, are never enough. There has to be work done on the court by the players. Hindering them from doing just that was a raucous crowd and a gritty NU Bullpups team pushing them to their very limit.
High-stakes, high-pressure, with a big crowd to boot. Sound familiar? Because it is familiar. Once again, on a February afternoon, the stage was set for SJ l to have his signature moment. It was up to him whether or not he would go ahead and take his shot at greatness.
All game long, the Bullpups were hounding Belangel with different types of defenders. There was the long-limbed RJ Minerva, who had a significant advantage in terms of reach, height and even lateral speed. But the most annoying (not necessarily the biggest) pest NU sent in was Paul Manalang. He was quick, pesky, and was someone who would just piss you off defensively. Opposing teams loathe him. The Bullpups absolutely revere him. He was the primary reason why they got Belangel to commit two early fouls during the first half, prompting Coach Joe Silva to bench SJ during the remainder of the second quarter.
Understandably, SJ was frustrated. He was more aggressive than usual, giving defenders an extra nudge every time he’d try to get the ball. It wasn’t necessarily a testament to SJ’s immaturity, he’s one of the most (if not THE MOST) mature players in High School basketball today. It spoke volumes of the peskiness of Paul and NU. This was the good kind of annoying for NU, while it was the kind that absolutely drove the Ateneo crowd crazy.
With 4:21 on the clock, SJ converted on a difficult lay-up against Rhayyan Amsali and Michael Malonzo to cut the lead to two points. Off the inbounds for NU, he got entangled with the same pest that’s been annoying him for most of the game. When the referee blew the whistle, it felt like that pest immediately left SJ’s body. The moment they called the offensive foul on Manalang, it was like getting to hit the bug with your trusty tsinelas. It might not be dead yet, but it felt incredibly liberating for SJ and the Blue Eaglets.
That feeling of freedom was enough for the Blue Eaglets to break out of their scoring slump. At the forefront of their uprising was SJ, who was determined to get the Blue Eaglets to the Finals.
It started with how SJ set-up the offense of Ateneo. In that FEU do-or-die game the previous season, Ateneo’s offense stalled because there was hesitation with the decision making of the players along the wings. This time around, Ateneo opted to run sets that would start with SJ pitching the ball to either Kai or Joaqui Manuel in the high post, then it would flow to a dribble hand-off by either Jason or Dave.
What made this kind of set-up better than the basic four out-one in sets that they ran versus FEU was the power the hand-off had in providing the offense some sort of flow and movement. Every time the ball would get to move around the Blue Eaglets with meaning, the energy level of their offense increased as well. It was the kind of set-up that could coax production from anyone from the Blue Eaglets, whether it be off a drive, a jumper or even a drop pass from the penetrator. But the ball somehow always found its way in SJ’s hands. He gladly accepted this responsibility and hit a variety of acrobatic lay-ups to help fuel Ateneo’s run.
With 2:51 remaining, Ateneo found themselves down 68-65. Making a run isn’t simply a matter of scoring a bunch of points. It also requires a team to shut down the opposing team they were trying to make a run against. During that two minute stretch, SJ and the Bullpups were just trading baskets with each other. Ateneo would not win by simply trading baskets. In fact, they didn’t become the top team in UAAP Juniors Basketball by trading baskets. They did so by shutting the other team down.
Come the next possession, Ateneo continued to run its motion set. It was the same, effective sets that got the ball to the hands of the right player to make the right play. By the end of it all, SJ had the ball at the top of the key. He pulled up for the trey. Swish. Tie game. It was a big basket, but they needed a stop to completely take control of the game.
As the Bullpups made its way to the other side of the court, you could already see the fire on the eyes of SJ. When the ball made its way to RJ Minerva, one of the players who shadowed him during the course of the game, he immediately swiped to steal the ball away from NU. Like how your crush’s smile takes your heart in an instant, SJ took hold of the ball. He ran as fast as he could to the other side of the court, elevated for the lay-up and crashed to the floor as RJ bumped into him.
Whistle. The ball settled into the hoop. And-one. The Ateneo crowd went berserk. But just as ecstatic was SJ. He rose up, let out a roar in front of the crowd and could not help but smile.
Mathemetically, the game wasn’t over when SJ made that lay-up. But the blueprint at beating NU was clear. Ateneo already had their offense flowing, now it was time for their defense to lock in, and leading them was their captain who immediately lit a fire under his team with big playes he made.
That’s the beauty with basketball – sometimes you just need THAT guy to light that fire. All season long, it was SJ who kept the Blue Eaglet ship steady. But big moments don’t like steady. They push players to their breaking point, and only those who are truly special get to push back and fight through everything. It was SJ’s time to push.
The next few possessions were peak Ateneo Blue Eaglets basketball. They locked in defensively, not allowing NU to score any points during the final two minutes of the ball game. Kai knocked down a couple of free throws to give Ateneo a five point cushion 73-68.
With 37 seconds left on the clock, the game was seemingly all but over. But SJ was determined to drive the nail to the coffin so hard NU would not be able to get out of it. SJ held the ball, asked for a couple of picks, and after a while, pulled up from the left wing right in front of Paul’s face. Of course, with how supernova SJ was during that game, there was no other way for the ball to go but into the basket.
SJ ran back to the other side of the court, shook his head as if to say “Can’t stop me buddy,” to the pest that kept on pissing him off the whole game. It was that one extra smack with the tsinelas that ensured the pest was finally dead.
Ateneo got the sweep. At the same time, SJ got the big moment he’s long deserved. During that fourth quarter, SJ scored 16 of the 23 total points of Ateneo, nearly matching the entire output of NU in that frame (18). For the entire second half, he scored 27 of the 38 points of his team. We throw around the term “buhat” a lot nowadays, but this was one of those rare instances where you could properly use such a term.
“Last five minutes, SJ carried us,” proudly mentioned Coach Joe Silva. “He showed why he’s the best point guard in High School today.”
The image of a player going isolation player after play is what enters our heads anytime the world “carried” is used to describe a performance of a player. But even in a situation that forced him to go out of the ordinary, SJ still stuck to the basics of being a point guard and set things up for his team. “He always had one eye on either me or Coach Yuri,” said Silva. That communication between point guard and coaches was clear as Ateneo ran their sets with such an impressive flow that would make even the best of coaches gush.
Many were left in awe with what SJ did. But “surprise” was a word you couldn’t use to describe his performance. “I’m not surprised. The boy really wants to win, he really wants to win a championship for Ateneo,” shared Coach Joe Silva.
SJ is often regarded as an all-around force who can turn on the jets and be the same scoring machine who once scored 99 points in a game. But that’s not the legacy SJ Belangel wants to leave in Ateneo. He wants nothing less than a championship.
Getting to win championships pushes players to the very limit, with only the worthy having the capabilities and the resilience of pushing back. With his team on the verge of losing an opportunity again at making it to the Finals, SJ pushed like he’s never pushed before. It may have not been the championship just yet, but the result was a performance of legendary proportions that will go down forever in Ateneo High School Basketball lore.