The Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles achieved what only two other UAAP schools have been able to achieve of late — bag back-to-back men’s basketball titles.
By now, every self-respecting basketball fan in the country already knows how things went down. The Blue Eagles finished the elimination round as the top-seeded team, beat the FEU Tamaraws in the Final Four and defeated a spirited UP Fighting Maroons squad in a memorable and emotional UAAP Season 81 Finals series.
En route to bagging the title, the Blue & White won their last 10 games from the beginning of the second round — an absolutely dominant showing for a group that was touted as the pre-season favorites to win it all anyway.
The Eagles, after all, made big waves before Season 81 even began. They won the City Hoops, Breakdown Basketball and FilOil Flying V titles over the summer and mid-year and they also represented the country very well in the 2018 William Jones Cup in Taiwan.
It has been quite a ride for them and it was a testament to how solid their basketball program is, thanks mainly to the work of their coaching staff and pool of managers, led by one of the most sought-after coaches in all of basketball, Tab Baldwin.
For now, I want to focus on the Eagles themselves, the players who captivated us and really carried the school to their 10th men’s basketball banner and 31st overall in the UAAP counting their titles in women’s and juniors’ basketball. With their grand total, Ateneo trails just UST and FEU in the overall number of UAAP basketball championships as the Tigers have a total of 40, while the Tamaraws have 39.
Let’s start with the Finals Most Valuable Player, a guy who due to a wrinkle in the UAAP’s rules, was excluded from the Mythical Five but, for all intents and purposes, was really the best player of Season 81. He is none other than Thirdy Ravena.
Thirdy had been through an interesting season. This is his penultimate UAAP campaign and despite his glowing stat-line (14.9ppg, 6.5rpg, 3.1apg, 1.2spg, 1.0bpg, 1.4 triples per game), he did not receive any end-of-season awards. He was never even Player of the Week at any point of the season.
Now, though, he stands tall atop the summit, logging what will surely be one of the finest UAAP Finals performances in history. I mean, putting up 38 points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals and five triples while shooting 13-of-18 from the field has got to be jaw-dropping, right? Had Thirdy not shot that well, UP may very well have turned the tide in Game 2, especially with their high-octane, emotionally-charged and resilient play.
Look out for Thirdy next season, folks. He’ll certainly figure in the MVP race and should be a frontrunner for a Mythical Team spot.
Let’s also talk about the Rookie of the Year, Angelo Kouame. Man, he’s a one-man double-double factory who just dominates even when Ateneo doesn’t run plays for him. And he’s even younger than some players active in the juniors’ division! And he has four more years of eligibility for Ateneo! It’s crazy to think how good this Ivorian is going to be by the time he finishes his UAAP journey.
Anton Asistio deserves praise, too. The graduating shooting guard has been the epitome of loyalty and perseverance. For all aspiring “small men” out there, Asistio should be your poster-boy. He is, in a way, this generation’s version of Jai Reyes or Emman Monfort. He’s been doubted all his life but he rises to the occasion time and time again.
And how about that “golden generation” of true blue Ateneans? How about the Nieto twins, Jolo Mendoza, and Aaron Black? These four (along with Thirdy) gave the Ateneo an ultra-rare four straight national titles during their elementary days, playing in the Milo SBP tournament. Not since the days of Enrico Villanueva, Wesley Gonzales, BJ Manalo, Paolo Bugia and Larry Fonacier have Ateneo had such a talented generation of homegrown stars. All those guys — Thirdy, Mike, Matt, Jolo and Aaron — will still be back next year, wiser, stronger and even hungrier for a three-peat.
The Xavier boys — Tyler Tio and Isaac Go — were also very instrumental. Go didn’t have the same degree of heroics he had last season but he was still a vital piece of the titular puzzle, while Tio had a lot of brilliant moments in Season 81. Chris Tiu comparisons, well-deserved!
One also cannot discount the contributions of Raffy Verano and Will Navarro — two hard working forwards who did much of the dirty work. Both will return next season and will take on even more challenging roles.
Former Eaglets Gian Mamuyac and BJ Andrade also had parts to play in this happy ending.
Mamu’s length and athleticism make him a deceptively adept defensive dynamo, while Andrade is a “hidden weapon” who is actually one of the most accurate three-point shooters around with a 50 percent success rate.
Adrian Wong is an unsung hero. He took on fewer minutes this year, but he didn’t complain one bit. He knew his role and personified sacrifice for the team.
The same goes for Filipino-Canadian Matthew Daves, who would start for most other collegiate teams but is biding his time in Ateneo. Watch out for his sky-high antics very, very soon.
Congratulations again Ateneo and good luck on going for three-in-row next year!