Despite the Mall of Asia Arena separated into two halves between blue and maroon, the 16,355 in attendance yesterday knew they were witnessing something historical. One side was ready to celebrate. The other could only sigh while also recognizing the magnitude of what was to come. After two failed attempts, third time’s the charm for the Ateneo Blue Eagles. By beating the UP Fighting Maroons 86-64, they had finally achieved a 14-0 record to sweep the elimination round of UAAP Season 82. It was the first time in 12 years such a feat had been achieved.
Even a team as business-minded as Ateneo could recognize the gravity of what they had just done. The five seniors joyfully hopped their way to the press room right after the game. While doing so, Matt Nieto and Adrian Wong couldn’t help but crack jokes with one another. Beside them was Mike Nieto who had the biggest smile on his face as he stared at the media hounding his Thirdy. This was one of the dreams of the Nietos fulfilled. A sweep of the elimination round; something even their father Jet didn’t achieve when he was a Blue Eagle.
Coach Tab Baldwin couldn’t avoid talk of it anymore. His team had already achieved what everyone had expected them to do ever since Season 81.
“We understand that this is a significant accomplishment for a basketball team, to go through a season undefeated,” said Baldwin after the game. No amount of “Our focus is on the next game” or “That’s not our priority” could undermine the fact that what the Blue Eagles had done was special. This was 11 years in the making ever since they won the first championship of the five peat.
Yet despite the gravity of their accomplishment, the scene wasn’t as festive as what you’d expect it to be. There was celebration but there was nothing grand with the way the Ateneo crowd commemorated the achievement. No special banners or tarpaulins. No grand celebrations in the locker room nor bottles of Gatorade being poured onto one another. No one from the alumni groups even bothered to bring out a walis to represent their sweep.
Was it arrogance by the Ateneans? Or was this perfect proof that this team, often branded as robotic, is as boring as people suggest them to be?
Seven players in the Ateneo Blue Eagles roster had already experienced how it is to sweep the elimination round in the UAAP, albeit in a more youthful stage. During Season 77, Matt, Mike, BJ Andrade, and Gian Mamuyac were part of the Blue Eaglets team who went 14-0 after blowing out the NU Bullpups. In Season 80, SJ, Jason Credo, and Geo Chiu also went undefeated after a thrilling victory versus NU again. While seasons 77 and 80 are three years apart, the scenes they created are very much similar. A sweltering Blue Eagle Gym that had 16 High School kids ecstatic with what they had just achieved. Excitement was at an all-time high. These kids knew they had achieved something special.
There was a catch, however: neither team would end their seasons undefeated. Matt, Mike, Mamu, and BJ lost their first game in the Finals against NU. SJ, Jason, and Geo also lost once in the Finals, this time in what could have been the title-clincher in Game 2. In fact, the Season 80 team was in danger of losing the Finals altogether as it needed the heroics of Kai Sotto and clutch free throws from SJ to put away the Bullpups completely.
Aside from the players’ personal experiences, the ghost of the Season 70 UE Red Warriors continues to linger. They went 14-0 but failed to win a single game during the Finals against the De La Salle Green Archers.
This elimination round sweep is special, but that’s all it is. An elimination round sweep. “This 14-0 sweep that we did. It doesn’t mean a thing without a championship ring,” said Mike. “The job isn’t done,” echoed Coach Tab, Adrian, Thirdy, Isaac, and Matt. It’s clear the team knows that losing in the Finals will make this sweep all for naught.
There are hurdles this team will go through as they now wait for their challengers in the Finals. The biggest one: rust. By gaining an outright berth to the Finals, Ateneo is given a two-week break before playing again. At least people would like to believe it’s a break.
Today, October 31, 2019, a day after sweeping the elimination round, the Blue Eagles will be having practice. “I believe we have an outstanding basketball team, but we haven’t proven ourselves at the last hurdle yet,” said Coach Baldwin. “We will put some new stuff in that teams won’t be able to go back and review our films and say that we’re gonna see the same team. That’s one of our advantages of the break and we’re gonna have some fun.“
As they trooped out of the press room, the smiles remained on the faces of the Blue Eagles as media continued to mob them for questions and photo requests. But at the same time, despite the clear joy they were feeling, they knew their job wasn’t finished just yet.
The Gatorade bottles and water buckets that will be used for celebratory baths can be kept for now. The energy for shouting and leaping ecstatically will be used for hardcore practice sessions for the meantime. 14-0 don’t mean a thing without a ring. Life goes on for the Blue Eagles. They wake up today with the same goal in mind: a championship for UAAP Season 82.