By Aljo Dolores
Ateneo Blue Eagles def. UP Fighting Maroons, 86-64
SJ Belangel (14 pts, 3 rebs, 2 asts in 13 mins)
What’s not to love about this kid? He’s just in his second year with the seniors’ team, yet SJ Belangel looks like he has the composure of a veteran on the floor. He doesn’t have otherworldly hops or blinding speed, yet he can carefully dissect his opponents on offense by attacking the defense right every single time. Even with the players from the second-best team defending him, SJ only took him 13 minutes and nine shots to be the second-leading scorer of the game. Now that’s an efficient offense.
Will Navarro (13 pts, 2 rebs, 2 asts, 2 stls, 6/6 FG)
This season has been the breakout year for Will Navarro. In a span of 14 games, he has turned from a bench warmer to a solid rotation player for Tab Baldwin’s wrecking crew. He didn’t do anything special on the floor. He just did the right things at the right time—nothing more, nothing less. It’s as if he was programmed to do what Tab says. And when you do exactly what he says, great things happen, like his hot chart filled only with O’s.
Kobe Paras (13 pts, 7 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 2 blks)
Shooting 10 misses in 15 attempts is bad. Turning the ball over four times is bad. Kobe did both, yet those didn’t stop him from having a good game. He just gives so much for UP every time he’s on the floor as he always tries to do every little thing possible for his team. He led all Fighting Maroons in points, rebounds, blocks, and triples made in the game, making him the undisputed best player for Coach Bo Perasol in the loss.
Ange Kouame (20 pts, 12 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 5 blks)
Human cheat code—that’s what Ange Kouame is. He plays like a character straight out of a basketball-inspired manga, doing otherworldly things that should exist only on the four corners of fine print. Yet here we are, witnesses to his greatness—all 6-foot-10 of it. It’s baffling to see how even just Kouame’s presence in the paint could alter shots and sets every time down the floor. Teams just have to be aware of where he is at all times. One mistake and he can punish opponents with a deuce, a block or a rebound. And he punished UP over and over again last night.
- UP did all the right things to start the game. They executed plays, ganged up on rebounds, defended the champs like there’s no tomorrow. Their confidence and demeanor shot up through the roof as they sought to become the streak-breakers to Ateneo’s sweep. The Fighting Maroons also capitalized on Kouame’s rest that bridged the first and second quarters. Their semi-big lineup that included Ricci Rivero, Javi Gomez de Liaño, Janjan Jaboneta and Jerson Prado did surprisingly well during that stretch. They exploited mismatches, scoring points over smaller defenders from Ateneo.
- Coach Tab Baldwin always plays his cards right so far this season, and this game was no exception. As soon as Kouame checked back in on the 8:08 mark of the second quarter, Ateneo quickly turned things around and flexed their inevitability. In less than eight minutes, the Blue Eagles went on a 17-2 run to seize control of the game. The constant threat of Kouame roaming around the floor opened things up for the likes of Belangel and Navarro to find holes in UP’s defense. As soon as the first half buzzer went off, what could have been the fight of the year turned into another basketball massacre for Ateneo.
- The Fighting Maroons’ lack of organization was exposed further in the third quarter. The lack of sets on both ends of the floor pushed them further down the rabbit hole. They only scored 12 points built on three assists in the third to follow up on the 11-point second-quarter performance. Broken and well-read plays are ingredients for disaster against Ateneo, knowing that they have eaten those kinds of sets all season long.
- UP took the Moreyball approach in this game and died with it. All but two of the 72 shots UP attempted in the game were taken from either the paint or on the three-point area. That seemed like a sound plan, except they shot poorly from deep AND they had to go up against the best shotblocking team AND player in the league. Ateneo’s interior defense has been almost impenetrable all season long, so it’s as if UP played to their opponents’ strengths. The Fighting Maroons expectedly struggled on the paint, converting only 18 of its 51 attempts up close.
- Overall, Ateneo is just the better team from Katipunan. Their offense flowed well (22 assists), which led to better shot attempts (They shot 53 percent from the field despite shooting poorly from deep). They outrebounded their opponents (46-38), forced more turnovers (21-18), and outplayed UP in every single stat recorded for the game. Needless to say, Ateneo remains the inevitable of Season 82 until someone snaps them to dust. Until that happens, Coach Tab Baldwin sends his regards to any angel of death who will attempt to hand out their first L of the season: don’t reach, youngblood.