It’s pretty easy to hate the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
Off the court, they are one of the more bourgeois teams in the UAAP. A majority of the team came from the high school program, and there are some members who grew up in other countries. A lot of fans of the other teams view the team as a bunch of spoiled, rich kids which make their humility seem quite ingenuine.
On the court, they are a slow-paced, methodical, and fundamental team (read: BORING) that build huge and insurmountable leads. On their first championship, they beat a La Salle team with a crowd darling Ricci Rivero and the most dominant force the UAAP has ever seen in Ben Mbala. The next year, they beat a UP team that has made the Final Four for the first time since 1999 and was trying to capture the UAAP title for the first time since 1986. Hell, even when they represented the country in the Jones Cup, some Filipinos cheered against them for the simple reason that they are the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
The head coach is an overqualified basketball monster who has coached in the Olympics and has no business coaching a college team. The assistant coach is so damn experienced that he can coach his own collegiate team if he wanted.
And the fans, man the fans. The fans are greedy and cocky, who want to win all the time. Year in and year out, fans from the other schools have to endure merciless verbal beatdowns from the Ateneo faithful. Their mouths write big checks that the team’s collective ass has to cash. Goddammit, the Blue Eagles go and cash these checks big time.
The most frustrating thing about hating the Ateneo Blue Eagles and their fans is that they simply don’t care about your opinion. They care about each other, do their business, and create history in the process.
After losing to the Adamson Soaring Falcons in the UAAP season 81 opener and to the FEU Tamaraws in the last game of the first round, they stamped an L on every team that has challenged them. It culminated with a master class of a beatdown on the UP Fighting Maroons in the Finals.
The Blue Eagles would join just one preseason tournament, the PBA D-League. It was a stark contrast to the year prior where they joined three (four if you include the Jones Cup) tournaments and was heavily scouted by the opposition. They would resume their season 82 preparations in Greece and Australia, then cap it off in the Philippines.
Until now, no one really knows what happened in Greece. They worked hard, and made sure nobody was watching.
The biggest thing that the haters do not know, or seem to discredit, is the fact that the Blue Eagles work hard. If you think that the on-court play comes naturally and they are simply too good, you are off by about a mile. Ask any Blue Eagle, and they will tell you that the practices are much more intense (if not more) than the games itself.
For example, to prepare for the upcoming UAAP season, Ateneo played a tune-up game with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian professional team. Having played the Gilas National Team (who was tuning up for the FIBA World Cup) and won, the expectations were low for the Blue Eagles. Lo and behold, the Blue Eagles led by as much as 18 and won the game 91-87. Expectations started to build.
Days before the start of the season, the question was not “will the Blue Eagles win the title a third straight time”. They were the consensus team to win the title this season. The biggest question was “Can Ateneo sweep this season?”
To be perfectly honest, it was a valid question. Even if Ateneo lost Anton Asistio and Aaron Black to graduation, and Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza to academics, the personnel next in line were just as capable, if not more. The biggest problem in all this sweep talk is that the league was getting more balanced. UST became a dark horse overnight with Rhenz Abando, Soulemane Chabi Yo, and Mark Nonoy leading the charge. FEU was always a contender despite losing key players. Of course, the team making the biggest noise in the preseason was UP. The addition of USNCAA talent Kobe Paras, as well as basketball and social media phenom Ricci Rivero has bolstered a Fighting Maroon team that can go all the way.
The season began with a statement win against Adamson, burying any PTSD that they may have suffered the season prior. Then they won, and then won some more.
Was it easy? Hell no. The UST Growling Tigers lost by a hair to the Blue Eagles in the first round. The FEU Tamaraws had a commanding 11 point lead at the half of their second round matchup before Ateneo flipped the switch. This run was nothing but easy. In fact, the more they win, the pressure is immense. But as stated earlier, the Blue Eagles don’t care.
As the win streak reached double digits, people were finally talking about it. As hard as the team and the coaches try to shut the noise down, it was inevitable. No matter how much they try to downplay the situation, it is a big deal. So, they did what they have done all season long: train.
The Norman Black teams have this sickness that they play to the level of their competition. This team does not seem to have that problem, as they beat the UE Red Warriors by 34 and the NU Bulldogs by 37. At 13-0, there was no turning back. Despite the final game of the elimination round being at the Mall of Asia Arena on a weekday, people flocked the venue to witness a bloodbath.
A bloodbath it was, as the Ateneo Blue Eagles ripped the Fighting Maroons to shreds. They have done it, and yet still were not happy. There were bigger fish to fry. A 16 day layoff would be the biggest opponents of the Blue Eagles and would combat that by facing the San Beda Red Lions of the NCAA and the Talk N Text Katropa of the PBA.
As the stepladder commenced, it became clearer that the UST Growling Tigers were the ones to challenge Ateneo and try to put a dent in an otherwise immaculate record. So hated are the Blue Eagles that the UST’s vanquished foes piggybacked on the Tigers’ success just to see the Big Blue Robots (who are nowhere to be found in the University Rankings) to lose. They even went as far as seeing the Letran Knights, a team who took down the then-spotless San Beda Red Lions, as a parallel in the UAAP finals.
The stage was set. System versus Mayhem. Tab Baldwin versus Aldin Ayo. Soulemane Chabi Yo versus Ange Kouame. Ateneo versus UST. You could not write a better story.
Game one saw the Ateneo Blue Eagles prove why they are the number one collegiate team in the country. They showed that rust is not on their vocabulary and jump on an 18-2 lead in the first quarter. Mark Nonoy kept the Growling Tigers at bay in the second quarter, shooting themselves back into the game 41-38. Finals Thirdy and TRESJ Belangel played the fireman’s role and carried the Ateneo to a 91-77 win, to lead the series 1-0 and notch their 15th straight win of the season.
Coach Tab was still not happy about the defense and the small details.
A day before Game two, Ateneo was training. It was longer than usual. The parents were there, as well as the Blue Babble Band. It was the last training of the season, and everyone inside the Moro Lorenzo Gym knew it. Coach Tab and the seniors could not help but feel sentimental, as they delivered their final words to the team. It was a nonverbal promise; there will be no game three.
As game two was a few minutes away, the Mall of Asia Arena was awash with a sea of blue and yellow. Ateneo wanted to finish it that day. UST remained defiant and wanted to extend the series.
Game two was a cardiac game. Ateneo lead by 10? UST erases it. Ateneo stages a run? UST has a counter-run. The Growling Tigers came to within two, 62-60 on the hot hands of Rhenz Abando who was absent in game one. The game was still up for grabs in the fourth quarter, even if Ateneo was leading 83-71 with two minutes left. Sherwin Concepcion knocked down a three with 1:36 left to cut the lead to within nine. Mark Nonoy made good on a floater with 1:12 left, and Thirdy Ravena answered with a layup in the next possession. In the last 30 seconds of the game, with Ateneo hanging on to a slim 86-79 margin and UST unveiling the true Mayhem defense for the first time in the finals, Coach Tab did not call a timeout. Instead, he trusted his wards to do the right thing. The Growling Tigers forced a turnover on Adrian Wong with 20 seconds left. A good defensive stop on Mark Nonoy brought the ball back to Ateneo with less than 10 seconds left. The Blue Eagles crossed halfcourt and gave the ball to Thirdy who flung it up as high as he can. The mission was done. A 16-0 Three-peat that has never been done in men’s basketball. History has been made again.
A whole season without losses. 26 straight games won dating back last season. Two Three-peats in the Final Four era. Eight titles in 11 years. Not bad for a team that’s “boring” and “larong mayaman”.
Thirdy Ravena set another milestone by capturing his third Finals MVP… IN A ROW. It’s hard enough to get one, but to get three straight is something even his brother cannot do. It is safe to say that this would not be duplicated anytime soon, if it is ever duplicated.
We have to talk about SJ Belangel too. Much as UST has a point guard of the future in Mark Nonoy, Ateneo unveiled Matt Nieto’s heir apparent in the finals. It was as if Coach Tab and SJ telling the league that they will give them nightmares for three more years.
Is this the greatest Ateneo Blue Eagles squad-no, UAAP team of all time? Maybe. One thing is for sure, the team and the community still do not care. The job is done…. At least for this season. The record speaks for itself. It’s up to you to judge it.
As Thirdy Ravena, Matt and Mike Nieto, Adrian Wong, and Isaac Go say their goodbyes, there are whispers in the air. Ateneo is vulnerable. They are finally human again. The seven other teams have a chance to beat Ateneo.
Too bad Coach Tab, the team, and the fans don’t care about that noise. They only care about each other, do their business, and make history along the way.