October 11, 2012.

Juami Tiongson steals the ball off a UST inbound. He runs the clock, hoists the ball as high as he could, then the buzzer sounds. The Ateneo Blue Eagles had just won its fifth straight championship, the most by a team since the start of the Final Four era. Coach Norman Black was riding off into the sunset with his hand raised, a ring adorning each finger. Nico Salva, Oping Sumalinog, Justin Chua, and Greg Slaughter might be leaving, but the groundwork for a few more titles were in place.

From this point on, there were two trains of thought. From the viewpoint of the Ateneans, it was all about continuing their dynasty. Incoming coach Bo Perasol was unproven at the college level but had a ton of coaching experience from the pros. What’s more, he is gifted with a lot of weapons at his disposal. Kiefer Ravena was still with the team, and a steady stream of very talented recruits was joining the fold every year. On the other hand, the other schools have begun stockpiling talent for an arms race determined to take the big blue championship machine down.

For the next three years, the dynasty that was once the best college program in the country went crumbling down.

In 2013, an injury to Kiefer Ravena at the start of the season saw the defending champions go 0-3 in their first three assignments. They managed to stay in the middle of the pack and earned a do-or-die matchup against the resurging UST Growling Tigers. The streak for the longest consecutive Final Four appearances has been broken, and there would be a new champion crowned at the end of the season for the first time in five years. It was okay, even the best fall down sometimes. As the old saying goes, “bawi na lang next season”.

Photo Credit: Mark Cristino, ABS-CBN News

In 2014, a potentially game-changing rookie in Arvin Tolentino committed to Ateneo. The who’s who of rookies that season also suited up for the Blue and White. A very hungry Chris Newsome, Nico Elorde, and Ponso Gotladera wanted to win it all before graduating. The Blue Eagles sat atop the standings at the end of the elimination round, holding a twice-to-beat advantage against the NU Bulldogs. Ateneo lost game 1 and the twice-to-beat, and have to go through the Bulldogs one more time in order to get into the Finals. With 9.2 seconds left in the game, technical difficulties left the Araneta Coliseum dark. A long layoff had both schools plan the last possession of the game, with the Blue Eagles having a crack at the basket. An isolation play for Kiefer Ravena that started at the top of the three-point line ended with foreign student-athlete Alfred Aroga cleanly blocking his shot. This sends the NU Bulldogs to the UAAP Finals, en route to their first championship in 60 years. Now the alumni and fans are cracking down. They would not allow any more failure.

In 2015, three more former Juniors MVPs joined the fray. Jerie Pingoy, Hubert Cani, and Mike Nieto were supreme talents in the high school ranks and were ready to strut their stuff in the college level. Two steady guards in Matt Nieto and Adrian Wong were there to help stabilize the rotation for the Blue Eagles. Foreign student-athlete Chibueze Ikeh was there to bolster the center spot. Reigning MVP Kiefer Ravena and long-time running buddy Von Pessumal were returning for one last season. Bo Perasol announced that he would not be signing a contract extension at the end of the season and the head coach hunt was on. Despite the plethora of talent for the Blue Eagles, they struggled to stay afloat and ended the eliminations as the fourth seed, with a twice-to-beat disadvantage against the league-leading FEU Tamaraws. The Blue Eagles were leading by one in the dying seconds of the game until Mac Belo drained a buzzer-beating putback at the end of the game, sending the Tamaraws to the Finals. The fans are at their angriest and most frustrated, hungry for a title.                                                                 

Coach Tab Baldwin assumed head coaching duties at the start of 2016 after an issue-plagued stint with the national team. He had a gold mine of experience, the most valuable being the 2004 Olympics stint with New Zealand. Basketball machine CJ Perez was also waiting in the wings, and the team was ready to roll. Then tragedy struck.

Before Season 79 even started, seven players were dismissed from the Ateneo for failing to comply with the school’s academic requirements. These were all highly touted recruits, slated to be the cornerstones of the school’s success moving forward. Overnight, the Blue Eagles went from title contender to rebuilding team. Expectations were lowered, as predictions were as low as sixth place this season. It was the start of a whole new process. The fans just needed to trust it.

Fate, however, plays funny jokes on all of us sometimes. After a 4-5 start, the Blue Eagles started winning games. They even beat the DLSU Green Archers to prevent a grueling stepladder format and secured a twice-to-beat advantage after beating an Adamson team who exceeded expectations and made it to the postseason. The Blue Eagles needed the twice-to-beat advantage against the FEU Tamaraws but got into the finals to face a powerhouse DLSU team led by Jeron Teng and Ben Mbala. Not bad for a rebuilding season right?

Everything else was a bonus at this point. Both games were nip-and-tuck affairs despite the Green Archers being overwhelming favorites. That is all that the supporters can ever ask for, the team giving their one big fight to try and win the title. The mood inside the Church of the Gesu after the series was light and thankful, a celebration of achieving something beyond what the so-called experts predicted.

As Tab Baldwin took the podium to deliver his address to the Ateneo faithful, all ears were on him. His message was loud and clear, and it sent chills down the spine of every Atenean present: the coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles defiantly proclaimed that he and the team will be gunning for the title next season.

In a span of a few months, everything about the Blue Eagles changed drastically. Thirdy Ravena gained a considerable amount of muscle. Isaac Go trimmed down and extended his shooting range. Matt Nieto was steadier at the point guard spot. Chibueze Ikeh went from WHY to #GG2EZ. Season  80 looked like their first title win in five years. All these improvements gained 13 straight wins prior to the last game of the elimination round against their bitter rivals and defending champions, the DLSU Green Archers. The true challenge for the Ateneo Blue Eagles started.

The Blue Eagles were scoreless at the last few minutes of the game, and Isaac Go flubbed a shot that could have guaranteed an Ateneo sweep to go to the Finals outright. Instead, Ateneo lost its final assignment and was set to face a dangerous FEU Tamaraws squad. Ateneo lost its second game in a row after squandering an early lead and letting former Blue Eagle Arvin Tolentino wax hot. Doubts were starting to creep in, and memories of 2014 were dancing on the heads of the Blue Eagle faithful.

Game Two was a close affair, and FEU was one stop away from upsetting the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Isaac Go came up clutch in regulation, sinking a three that sent Ron Dennison flying into outer space and being an official NASA satellite, and in overtime where he hit a kneeling dagger to send the Blue Eagles to the Finals once more.

The Finals were emotionally charged for Ateneo, as they had the upper hand early in all three games. Game one saw an aggressive Blue Eagle squad initiating the contact and shutting down Ben Mbala to a career-low eight-point output. In game two, they squandered a 21-point lead and the Green Archers would not look back from that point. In game three, the score was tied at 66 at the end of the third quarter. Isaac Go once again came up clutch and converted on a high-arcing three-point dagger to clinch the title for Ateneo. The process was finally complete, and the result was championship gold.

As Tab Baldwin took the podium once more at the Church of the Gesu, the mood was now lighter, but the message was the same; they were going to annex this title next season.

Photo Credit: Josh Albelda, Rappler

The Blue Eagles approached this season with the mentality that they are not the defending champions. But by and large, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are the consensus number one choice by experts (and mamarus alike) to win it all this season. This is the team that racked up wins in the preseason tournaments, the best amateur team in the country, and even beat national and foreign club teams. Save for losses against Adamson and FEU in the first round, Ateneo never faced true adversity. It was so hard to support the Blue Eagles, as the result is almost inevitable. They won games with relative ease, 10 of the 12 were won by double digits.

The moment the UP Fighting Maroons escaped with an overtime win over heavy favorites Adamson Soaring Falcons to propel themselves into the finals, the storylines broke out. A crapton of storylines, to be exact.

“The underdog story of the year!”

“I want UP to win because they clearly want it more”

“The Fighting Maroons deserve to be the champions!”

There were storylines for Ateneo too, and they weren’t quite as positive as their finals opponents.

“It’s the 2002 Ateneo dream run for UP”

“It will be a repeat of 2006”

Everyone, including fans of other schools, was solidly behind captain Paul Desiderio and the UP Fighting Maroons. Why wouldn’t they? Nobody expected them to be there. The UP Fighting Maroons were 3-5 to end the first round, in danger of missing the final four yet again. They survived three do-or-die games to get to where they are now. It was their first time in 32 years to reach the grand stage, and were due for a big win. The team wears their hearts on their sleeves, and they are brimming with pride and that famous Utak at Puso mantra. For UP, kanila ito. They were not content on making the Final Four. They are not happy to be in the Finals. This was the year they win it all.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles demolished the FEU Tamaraws 80-61, making a clean entry to the finals for the first time since Tab Baldwin took over. Everyone who knew a thing or two about basketball predicted a close game, as Prince Orizu and Arvin Tolentino, two players who are matchup nightmares for the Blue Eagles, were finally back in the fold. There was a running story that FEU was one stop away from entering the finals last season, and since their team is intact, it would be very possible for the Tamaraws to take down the Blue Eagles.

Ateneo, however, could care less about storylines.

They went out of the gate with such ferocity that Thirdy Ravena slammed it home twice first quarter. The killer instinct was evident. Even when the lead reached 30, Ateneo refused to let up. That Ange Kouame chase down block was probably the biggest soul snatcher that sealed the deal.

On November 28, 2018, the stage was set. A rivalry that started in the 1920s and laid dormant after 1987 was being rekindled. Being a new generation, the petty war was staged online. Memes, tweets, and pictures were hurled by both sides. It was witty banter, a friendly competition between two neighbor schools whose roots run deep on excellence, social justice, and morals. It was shaping up to be a good series, with sportsmanship taking center stage. It was good vibes all around until the game started.

The Fighting Maroons were fueled by a crowd that was two thirds UP fans, and kept in step with Ateneo. With adrenaline coursing through their bodies, Jun Manzo, Diego Dario, and Gelo Vito drained threes even from way out or with hands on their faces. A Jun Manzo buzzer-beating three trimmed the Ateneo lead to one, 39-38 at the end of the first half. Things got chippy during the second half, beginning with a technical foul on a UP official for approaching the referees at halftime. Another technical foul was issued on Juan GDL for complaining after draining a three-pointer. The floodgates opened after an inadvertent push from Ange Kouame floored MVP Bright Akhuetie and the referees assessed a non-call. The maroon crowd was merciless as the first year big man was booed out of the building every time he touched the ball. He became tentative, and his patent rim protection was gone for fear of injuring someone else. Luckily, Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena picked up the scoring cudgels and combined for 48 points (Nieto 27, Ravena 21) as Ateneo took game one, 88-79.

The vitriol raged on until a few days after the game. UP fans exclaimed that Ateneo played dirty, and Ateneans accused the UP community of being classless. The hits were going below the belt. One particular post saw a board of Regents member threatening to injure three Ateneo players by conducting a joint fraternity effort to take them out of commission. Sarcastic or not, both camps found it in bad taste and united them to condemn the offensive statement.

Everything about game two was an oddity. Before the festivities even started, newly-minted MVP Bright Akhuetie was not allowed to wear his knee brace because it has some metal on it, and a FIBA ruling does not allow the use of it in a game as it can hurt another player Juan GDL did his best Steph Curry impression by shooting from the Araneta Coliseum logo. Early on, it looked like a reprise of Game One. One thing was different though; the proverbial switch flipped.

Ange Kouame had his revenge game after a dismal performance in the beginning. The Rookie of the Year posted a 22-20 game, along with two blocks. At any given day, his 14.5 points and 16 rebounds per game would have been suffice to proclaim him finals MVP, too bad that he is teammates with Thirdy Ravena.

Holy crap, Thirdy Ravena. As if his near triple-double was not good enough, he went from Super Saiyan god to Super Saiyan Blue in game two. He channeled his inner LeBron James with a mind-boggling 38 points, 13/18 from the field, 5/7 from deep,along with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. If that is not the most dominant finals performance in UAAP HISTORY, it has to be up there. Thirdy is his no longer just Kiefer’s brother, or Bong’s son; he is his own man now.

The dynasty of five rings has been long gone, but this current crop of Blue Eagles looks like they are on the same trajectory. A new dynasty is being built, and two consecutive titles is a good way to start. Only Anton Asistio is graduating this season, and recruits will soon be by the handful. Coach Tab Baldwin once again took the podium at the Church of the Gesu, but it was more of gratitude than anything else. But if it is any indication, with just Anton Asistio graduating from the team, it’s still Ateneo’s title to lose.

To the rest of the UAAP, until someone knocks the Ateneo Blue Eagles off their perch, they will remain the kings of the UAAP. You better believe they are going to defend their titles or die trying.

Congratulations to the Ateneo Blue Eagles, UAAP Season 81 back-to-back champions.