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  1. Lookie What We Got Here (What A Shocker)

    99-81.

    Lets just get that out of the way.

    No, it wasn't even close.

    Game 2 ended pretty much the way even the books thought it would: with an unstoppable Blue and White juggernaut running right through the Maroon and Teal.

    Now the Ateneo De Manila is once again back-to-back champions, their third such feat in the UAAP.

    The first time the Ateneo did it, the father of twins Matt and Mike Nieto, Jet, was still playing for the Blue Eagles, some 30 years ago. Jet is now a doctor, and has two other children, a daughter and another son. Jet's team was primarily homegrown, with the likes of Danny Francisco, Alex Araneta, and Jun Reyes, all coming from the Ateneo Grade School.

    The second time was during the Rabeh Al-Hussaini - Nonoy Baclao era, about a decade prior to this latest diadem. This was the time the Ateneo went into high gear with its recruitment, and began an historic 5-peat reign anchored mainly on players who came from outside Loyola Heights. Al-Hussaini, the 2008 MVP, came out of Philippine Christian University High School, while Baclao was a transfer student from West Negros University.

    This time it seemed the circle was completed, with homegrown talents leading the way along with arguably the best import to ever play in the UAAP. Thirdy Ravena and Angelo Kouame combined for 60 points in Game 2. That is not a typo. Read it again. 60. Points. Ravena had 38 points including five three-pointers, while Kouame had 22 points and 20 rebounds to make up for his lackluster showing in Game 1.

    "I'm just so proud of these guys, like I keep saying, we had a job to do and we did it," said Coach Tab Baldwin in one interview after they had completed the title run.

    It said in this space that Kouame would have a bounce-back game, and boy did he ever. By our count he had five dunks.

    Juan Gomez De Liano, MVP Bright Akhuetie, and graduating Paul Desiderio all tried to keep University of the Philippines in this fight, but clearly they were totally out-everything in Game 2.

    How many instances was an Ateneo shooter left wide open, with the closest UP defender some two meters away?

    How many times did Ateneo run that screen-hand off action at the perimeter to bamboozle the UP perimeter defense?

    How many times did a weakside cut or a pick-roll result in an open layup for a Blue Eagle?

    How many times was Akhuetie so incensed with the UP defense that he was yelling at teammates and wondering what the hell hit them?

    And then Ravena just went ballistic, scoring 17 in the first half then topping it off with 21 in the second. His fourth three-pointer made it a 21-point lead with about four minutes to go. The Ateneo was up by as much as 22 and was never really threatened throughout this game.

    "We did not want a Game 3, not against this team," Ravena said in a post-game interview. "We knew what we had to do. This is for the Ateneo Community. Hats off to the UP Community as well," he added.

    Now that the latest back-to-back title is all wrapped up, preparations for Season 82 officially begin.

    For Ravena though, that meant getting back to normal student life, including a group study session he had to skip in preparation for Game 1, the subject of much ribbing from his classmates.

    That goes for all of the other players who saw action in these Finals.

    And that perhaps should be the biggest takeaway: this was perhaps the first time ever that bona fide student athletes faced each other in the UAAP Finals.

    Updated 12-07-2018 at 01:47 PM by Sam Miguel

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  2. Lookie What We Got Here (Again)

    88-79.

    Just like that Game 1 of the UAAP Season 81 Finals was over, and when the smoke cleared it was the reigning champion Ateneo De Manila standing victorious. Now the Blue Eagles get a chance to win their second back-to-back championship in a decade, and their third such time in their UAAP history.

    For its part, upstart University of the Philippines came quickly back down to earth after going through a must-win against ousted De La Salle to end the eliminations, and then going through a wringer against Adamson University in the Final 4. Adamson had a twice to beat advantage and UP just flat out went out and beat them twice. Both UP Final 4 wins came on game-winning shots, in Game 1 from import Bright Akhuetie, and the second from team captain Paul Desiderio.

    There was certainly a lot of hype going into these Finals, since this is the first time the neighbors along Katipunan (is it an Avenue or a Road...?) would be squaring off for the flagship Men's Senior Basketball Title.

    Game 1 lived up to all the buzz.

    With the Ateneo racing to an early 17-7 lead, it looked like this would be another walk in the park for the reigning champions. They did after all sweep their season series versus the Fighting Maroons by an average of over 12 points per game.

    UP however fought back, fueled by the Maroon Gallery that made up most of the SM MOA stands. At halftime it was a close 39-38 behind the hot shooting of guard Jun Manzo. Manzo, who averages about five points per game, went on to finish with a career-high 19.

    That was pretty good considering Desiderio only managed six points, although he did complete eight assists.

    UP stuck to its strengths as a team in spite of Desiderio's limited output, nearly getting to their 80-point team average, and also getting plenty of production from their bench.

    For the Ateneo they had to turn to their two veteran stars - Thirdy Ravena and Matt Nieto. Ravena had a near-triple double with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, while Nieto poured in a career-high 27 points on 4-for-5 shooting from three-point range.

    A (literal) huge missing link for the Blue Eagles was import Angelo Kouame, who only mustered seven points, although he did get 12 rebounds and two blocks.

    Kouame was out of sync all game long, missing a dunk, and then feeling the heat from the UP fans after he collided with Akhuetie, sending the Nigerian off the court on a stretcher. Akhuetie however was able to return with some seven minutes left in the game, although he only finished with 10 points, a far cry from his 18 and 12 averages for his MVP Season.

    Going into Game 2, Ateneo fans can expect Kouame to have a bounce-back game. The 19-year old import from the Ivory Coast clearly took the heckling and jeering he got in his first UAAP Finals game too much to heart in Game 1. Coach Tab Baldwin surely must have had a long conversation with him. "I think he'll be fine for Game 2. This was his first time in a championship," Baldwin said in one interview after Game 1.

    One other thing to think about is that UP may have already thrown their best punches, and they were still unable to knock Ateneo off their perch. "We proved Ateneo is beatable, I think, with just a few tweaks on defense," said Coach Bo Perasol in a post-Game 1 interview. That of course is easier said than done.

    With their perimeter defense exposed by UP's long bombs in Game 1, Baldwin certainly knows he has some tweaking to do himself. "They shot their three pointers about a step behind the line, not at the line or close to it, but farther out. We did not do a good job defending that," Baldwin stated in another interview.

    Juan Gomez De Liano, the 19-year old Mythical 5 member, had 17 points but seemed to struggle versus the Ateneo defense.

    Gomez De Liano, Akhuetie, and Desiderio should all be looking to bounce back strong as well.

    Let us however talk plainly and call this as it is: If Kouame plays his usual game, with just enough support from the rest of his team, they will have their back-to-back title this afternoon, right in time for their Alumni Homecoming this Saturday.

    His coaches and teammates know that Kouame is the key to everything for them, and if he gets going this title should be in the bag for the Ateneo.

    For UP they have to take this one game at a time, starting with Game 2 later, but things are certainly not looking up for them no matter how much they may say so in interviews.

    First they have to replicate their defense on Kouame, then replicate that further to extend to Ravena, something far easier said than done.

    It says here the Ateneo gets its third back-to-back by the end of the day.
  3. Lookie What We Got Here

    Benjie Paras, the legendary Tower of Power of the PBA, the PBA's only rookie MVP, was still a teenager and the center of the University of the Philippines the last (and only) time they won the UAAP championship.

    Back then, the mullet was the "in" hairstyle, and Paras was one of the many young men who sported it.

    Fast forward 32 years, and Paras is now retired and has a new career as a television mainstay on sitcoms and basketball broadcasts.

    His mullet is gone too, although that happened a long time ago.

    His son Kobe, after a star-crossed stint in the US NCAA, is now undergoing residency in UP and will likely suit up for the Fighting Maroons next season, in what should be his third year in college.

    That is how long ago it has been since State was even in the UAAP Finals.

    Last night they overcame Adamson University 89-87 in their win-or-go-home knockout game for the last Finals berth in UAAP Season 81.

    Their reward will be to take on reigning champion Ateneo De Manila in the Finals.

    For the Blue Eagles, Season 81 was supposed to be a validation year, to stamp their class as champions on the entire field, and indeed, save for a couple of hiccups, they did precisely that.

    With 6-11 rookie import Angelo Kouame manning the middle, the boys from Loyola Heights practically walloped the entire field, en route to a 12-2 record at the end of the eliminations and the Number 1 seed going into the Final 4.

    Their only losses were to the Soaring Falcons on opening weekend, and to Far Eastern University, both in Round 1 of the elimination stage.

    Even with those two setbacks, everybody and his brother was betting on the Ateneo to repeat as champions. Clearly, no other team had the tools to match up against them.

    In their opening weekend loss to Adamson, Kouame struggled with one measly point and foul trouble, attributed to opening day / rookie jitters, and they still only lost by a basket.

    In their Round 1 loss to the Tamaraws, it seemed everything including the proverbial kitchen sink was tossed in by the boys from Morayta, and went through the net. Ateneo also lost their top two players, forward Thirdy Ravena to fouls, pointguard Matt Nieto to a finger injury, and having a nightmare of a third period as FEU did them in 7-17.

    All of their wins however were in dominating fashion.

    They got back at both the Falcons and the Tamaraws in Round 1, shredding both teams, although FEU losing big import Prince Orizu in the first period made things a lot easier for the Ateneo to exact payback.

    Looking back at video of their elimination wins, the Blue Eagles, quite simply, were never really threatened by any opponent.

    Kouame remains the primary reason of course, with his combination of size (he's the biggest player in the league), wingspan (7-5), quickness, ability to handle, run the floor, and with touch rare for a player his size. Kouame gives the Ateneo so many extra possessions because he easily out-rebounds entire teams. Kouame's length and athleticism also allow him to be a prototypical modern era rim protector, averaging more blocks on his own than entire teams. If the UAAP thought the Ateneo was a load in Greg Slaughter's two years, they better brace themselves for Kouame, who is only in his first playing year with four more to go.

    UP on the other hand was at various points either below .500 or just at that level. They ended the eliminations with an 8-6 record, besting favored De La Salle in their last elimination assignment to wrap up the third seed in the Final 4. This was their first time back in the Final 4 after a 21-year absence.

    They are leaning on the MVP performance of import Bright Akhuetie, who transferred from Perpetual Help, last season's Rookie of the Year, Juan Gomez De Liaño, and team captain Paul Desiderio.

    Gomez De Liaño has proven to be quite the gunner, scoring 30 against Adamson in their KO game, but he also leads the league in assists, proving he can both score and create for his teammates.

    Desiderio is one of those all heart guys who want the ball in crucial situations. It was his basket, right in the face of the much taller Sean Manganti, that sealed the win for UP and sent the Maroons into the Finals. It was not the first time Desiderio nailed a game winning shot for his team.

    Kouame gets plenty of help from Ravena, who has been described by Coach Tab Baldwin as a "mini Hulk". Ravena might have made the Mythical 5 were it not for a suspension early in the season due to unsportsmanlike fouls.

    Nieto also provides production, leadership, and headiness for the Blue Eagles, having emerged last season as a bona fide star after previous years as nothing more than the guy ...
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  4. How Hard Could It Be

    With the UAAP about to start its 81st season this weekend, Mr Libog's thoughts naturally turned to thoughts of championship.

    "How hard could it be?" He repeated that question probably at least a dozen times over lunch at this new Vietnamese restaurant near where we live.

    (Note to friends: you should all give it a try, its called Ba Noi, inside Kapitolyo, in Pasig, their Pho is truly inspired, and huge, good for two if you have normal appetites.)

    Going back to our conversation, Mr Libog was off on another one of his discussions on basketball common sense.

    "Pare naman, hindi naman imposibleng talunin ng Ateneo ang Lasalle last year. Apat na vetreran starters ang nawala sa Lasalle, apat 'yon ha!," he emphasized.

    "Tapos ang pinalit mo, isang mad bomber na converted point guard, na-dengue pa along the way. 'Yung isa magaling na sana, kaya lang siempre may pagka-bwakaw, tsaka magulo maglaro. Take note, pareho pa silang sophomores, second year lang sa college parehas," he continued.

    I reminded him that they still had arguably the best player ever to set foot on a UAAP court in maybe the last 20 years, the incomparable Benoit Mbala. Plus they also had a veteran transferee in 6-5 slam dunk champion Leonard Santillan, and veteran 6-5 Fil-American Abu Tratter. Heck, they even had Kib Montalbo, Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, and 6-8 Justin (I am not spelling that with an "e" at the end because that is the feminine spelling and I don't care what it says on his birth certificate) Baltazar.

    "Sino ba point guard dun? Sino may hawak nung bola parati? Nakakarating ba kay Mbala?" he rattled off.

    "Tsaka, pare naman, may nakita ka bang galaw o pukol ni Mbala? Naalala mo ba si Orlando Johnson o kaya si Justin Brownlee sa laro ni Mbala? Hindi 'di ba? Sabi ko naman sa iyo wala naman talaga siyang pukol, matigas ang kamay, kita mo naman sa freethrows niya. Hindi din naman siya tipong kamador na may pullup or may tres gaya nina Johnson at Brownlee," he continued.

    Still, said I, Mbala is a heck of a player, and since this is only college ball, that makes him a titan on the court, plus as much as Mr Libog may have ripped into Mbala's teammates, no one would ever dispute there are probably more PBA players on Lasalle last year than the Ateneo did.

    I further reminded him that he himself made a pre-Season 80 prediction that Lasalle would repeat as champions, due largely, I reminded him further still, to, in his words, "Mbala wala talagang katapat."

    It was in fact the first time he said, "How hard could it be?" And indeed how hard could it be to win when you have a 6-6 titan on your side.

    "You remember I keep telling you how in the US NCAA it is normally the teams that do not have an NBA lottery prospect that wins the national championship?" he said.

    "I'm talking about teams like Villanova, UConn, etc. In the last 10 years, only the Kentucky team of Anthony Davis had a 1-done lottery prospect and won the national title, all the rest are mostly veteran teams," he explained.

    "Ganyan din actually sa UAAP, hindi naman just sheer talent. Look at Mbala's title team. Meron siyang Jeron Teng, Jason Perkins, Thomas Torres, Julian Sargent. Last year Mbala has two ball-dominant sophomores who barely played in their freshman year, a transferee playing for the first time in the UAAP, and a so-so talent whose best asset is he's a 6-5 Fil-Am."

    And he played against what, a bunch of all stars?

    "No, but Ateneo had veterans by then, battle-tested na. Thirdy Ravena, the Nieto twins, Anton Asistio, George Go, Vince Tolentino, even Ikeh, how many years have they been playing together? Graduate na nga sina Vince at Ikeh eh, Thirdy sat out a whole year pa, so that was how old that team was."

    "Same with Lasalle last year as well, nawalan sila ng apat na fifth-year starters. When they had all of those guys, especially Jeron, how hard could it be?"

    (I told you guys he said that a lot over lunch...)

    "So this year, fearless forecast ko, basta palaruin si (Angelo) Kouame, taya ko bahay namin pati lahat ng kotse ko, champion ang Ateneo," he declared.

    What if Kouame is ruled ineligible to play?

    "Sure Final 4 pa din, with a few breaks, or maybe some freethrow help from the referees, Finals pa din ang Ateneo. How hard could it be?"

    Everybody else?

    "UST and UE will dispute the cellar. All the rest rambulan na lang, although lamang na for Final 4 berths siguro FEU tsaka Adamson."

    There you have it folks.

    How hard could it be...
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  5. Reclamation, Upset

    "It was over, we are champions, that is all I could think of," said an ecstatic Chibueze Ikeh, the 6-8 center, in the aftermath of the Ateneo De Manila's thriller of a title clincher against arch rival De La Salle 88-86. This is Ikeh's final playing year. He is graduating in a few months.

    After three of the most grueling and emotionally-wrenching games in UAAP Finals history, the Blue Eagles reclaimed a championship they once owned for five straight seasons.

    "I just lay on the floor of the Araneta (Coliseum)," said point guard Matt Nieto after that last heave from La Salle went in. "I knew it was all over and we were champions," he added happily.

    Indeed, this had to be the toughest, and to use that millennial term, epic title series in maybe the last 15 years.

    Last year, the Green Archers were the veteran-laden team bringing in Benoit Mbala, arguably the best player ever to see action in the country's most popular varsity league. Somehow the Blue Eagles managed to get into the Season 79 Finals to square off against La Salle, and expectedly, the Ateneo bowed in a two-game sweep.

    Fast forward to winner-take-all Sunday just a year later, and suddenly the Ateneo looked nothing like the easy pickings they were just a year prior. "We learned there is no substitute for working the hardest you can," remarked Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin, the American-New Zealand mentor who preached "playing the right way" right from the get-go.

    Game 1 had its fair share of controversy, as videos from that game continue to make the rounds in social media showing at least four instances where La Salle players were taking cheap shots at their Ateneo counterparts, including at least three instances of closed fist strikes from the La Salle side that should have merited at least a one-game suspension on the errant players. The Ateneo still pulled off the 76-70 victory in this game, with center George Go completing the and-1 clincher.

    Game 2 saw the Blue Eagles go up by as much as 21 points, only to have the Green Archers turn that around and build up as much as a 13-point lead themselves, as they knotted the series at one game apiece with the 92-83 victory.

    Game 3, well, was a classic.

    The Ateneo was up 10 early on, but La Salle stormed right back in the third period, taking a 59-62 lead on a one-hander by forward Abu Tratter.

    But the Ateneo kept its composure and got an 80-70 spread midway through the payoff fourth period.

    La Salle would come to within 82-80 on a three-pointer, with over a minute left.

    Go however would reprise his hero's role, taking the perfect kick-out pass from a driving Thirdy Ravena to nail a clutch three-pointer from his favorite quarter-court spot to give the Ateneo the 85-80 breathing space it needed.

    "The whole team is clutch. I would not have made that shot if it wasn't for the coaches who design our plays, my teammates who were all in their proper spots," said the 6-7 Go, an Applied Chemistry Major now in his senior year in college.

    Nieto and Anton Asistio would nail the insurance free throws to negate the buzzer beating three-pointer from La Salle for the final count.

    This is the Ateneo's ninth senior division basketball diadem, and without a doubt the one they had to work for the hardest.

    Their 1987 and 1988 back-to-back titles, where Nieto's father Jet played, was a tall, tough, talented team.

    Enrico Villanueva, LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Rich Alvarez, and Wesley Gonzales all went on to have very good pro careers, with a couple of them even seeing National Team duty, after they won the 2002 championship.

    Forget the 2008 to 2012 5-Peat dynasty under Norman Black. Those teams were so ridiculously loaded it would have been a crime for them to lose. Yes, even the 2010 team in between the Rabeh Al Hussaini-Nonoy Baclao and Greg Slaughter years.

    This championship was probably the only one among the nine when the Ateneo was the clear underdog in terms of sheer talent.

    I mean, come on, Benoit Mbala was playing for La Salle, and he had swingman Ricci Rivero, point guard sniper Aljun Melecio, 6-5 slam dunk champion power forward Leonard Santillan, and Tratter.

    "Sa totoo lang kung kunwari jak en poy tayo, tapos pipili ka ng players mo, sino ba mas pipiliin mo? Hindi ba talaga namang mas may talent and players ng La Salle lalo na si Mbala," queried Mr Libog over lunch before Game 3.

    "We need to get hot from three-point range, and hope for some foul trouble on Mbala at least, para may laban tayo," he added.

    Mr Libog got his wish.

    Baldwin did a heck of a job accentuating the strengths of the Blue Eagles while doing his best to minimize their negatives, not the least ...
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