To those who have followed Ateneo basketball the past few years, SJ Belangel's game-winning basket for the Philippines men's national basketball team that sunk South Korea on Wednesday should not have come as a surprise.
The third-year Blue Eagles point guard delivered the death blow in Gilas' initial game of the Clark leg of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers, his 3-pointer at the buzzer giving the hosts an 81-78 victory over their vaunted basketball rivals.
Belangel may all be just 21 years old, but he has been playing with a cold-blooded poise for years now that's not even in the character of more veteran players.
In Game 2 of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball finals in 2019, Belangel came up big, scoring 15 points — all 3-pointers — to lead the Blue Eagles to an 86-79 triumph past University of Santo Tomas, a result that helped seal a 16-0 campaign and another league championship for Ateneo.
Two of Belangel's 3-pointers helped to douse the Growling Tiger's rally in the second half.
Thirdy Ravena, Belangel's multiple UAAP finals MVP teammate on the Blue Eagles squad, said at the time: "He made a lot of tough shots, na masasabi natin na parang pamatay-sunog.
"Those were the times na parang naiisip namin na, 'Nako humahabol na, humahabol na.' But SJ was there to make a tough shot, and we were all like, parang makakahinga kami ng kaunti."
In Season 80 juniors basketball in 2018, Belangel finished with 31 points, including a mind-blowing 12 in the final 3 minutes as the Blue Eaglets survived a late rally by National University to win 78-68 and secure a 14-0 sweep of the elimination round.
At the time, one of Belangel's teammate was Kai Sotto, making this a winning reunion of sorts for the former Ateneo high-schoolers.
At the end of the Blue Eagles' Season 82 campaign, Belangel, who considers 3-time UAAP champion teammate Matt Nieto a mentor, had a modest answer when asked about his ability to come through in the clutch.
"For me, I just have to be ready," the 5-foot-10 point guard said.
"Hindi lang ako, kundi 'yung buong team. Walang nag-iisang star player, basta lahat kami mag-contribute, 'yan ang ie-expect niyo sa amin next year, lahat kami ko-contribute," he added, referring to Season 83 that never materialized because of the pandemic.
Ravena said in an interview last year that he liked the way Belangel and others who have come up the Ateneo basketball program have handled themselves on the court.
"Sila SJ, lalo na sila Mamu (Gian Mamuyac), talagang mga beterano na 'yan," Ravena said.
"Kahit sa Eaglets, parang parehas lang din 'yung culture, kasi 'yung turo sa college noon, 'yun din 'yung turo sa high school. So talagang alam na nila 'yun."
Fast-forward to Wednesday night, with the basketball stakes much, much higher, Belangel showed to a wider, more success-starved hoops fanbase — the entire Philippines — just what he's made of.
— With a report from Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News
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