MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo Blue Eagles are well aware that they have yet to complete their goal in the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament after an exceptional elimination round campaign that saw them win all 14 of their games.
A dominant 86-64 triumph over University of the Philippines last Wednesday gave the Blue Eagles a perfect 14-0 record, and also propelled them to the best-of-3 Finals.
It marks the first time in Ateneo's history that they have swept the elimination round – in the seniors' division, that is. The Blue Eaglets have already achieved that feat before, most recently in Seasons 80 and 77.
Twins Matt and Mike Nieto went 14-0 in their final year in high school, eventually leading the Blue Eaglets to the title with help from Finals MVP Jolo Mendoza.
SJ Belangel, Ateneo's second string point guard, also helped the Eaglets go 14-0 in Season 80 – thanks in large part to the dominance of Kai Sotto.
"Ngayon lang namin nalaman na history pala, akala ko may nakagawa na before [sa seniors]," said Mike after their win over UP last week. "First Ateneo [team]. We're just blessed."
"But… the mission isn't done yet, 14-0 doesn't mean a thing without a ring. So you know, we're just hungry for more," he added.
For the three players, the lessons they learned in their high school days will fuel them as they try to complete a perfect campaign for the Blue Eagles. Neither the Nietos' team nor Belangel's was able to go 16-0 as they both dropped games in the Finals before claiming the crown.
In the case of the Nietos, they lost Game 1 of the best-of-3 series to the National University Bullpups, 76-72. They recovered with a 78-76 win in Game 2 before Mendoza sparked them in Game 3, scoring 30 points in a 90-73 rout of the Bullpups.
Belangel's Blue Eaglets squad also ran into National U in the best-of-3 Finals in Season 80. They won Game 1, 86-70, behind a triple-double from Sotto, but lost Game 2, 70-67.
Clutch plays from Sotto allowed Ateneo to hack out a 63-58 win in Game 3 for their first high school title since the Nietos graduated.
"Of course it's a fact that we lost Game 1 when we were in high school. Ayaw lang naming maulit 'yun," said Mike. "I think we're more experienced now than we were in high school."
"At the same time, hindi lang kaming dalawa [ni Matt]," he added. "Si SJ, si Geo Chiu, and si Jason Credo also swept and then lost Game 2 of the Finals. I think we're just gonna learn from those mistakes before so we can apply it now."
One lesson that Belangel learned? Avoiding complacency. The sophomore guard admitted that they were too relaxed in the second game of their series against the Bullpups and lacked the necessary focus to close out the series.
Fortunately for Belangel, a now-familiar voice was there to help them correct their mistakes.
"Noong natalo kami, andoon si Coach Tab (Baldwin)," he revealed.
Baldwin, the head coach of the Blue Eagles, spoke to their high school squad after that costly defeat to remind them of what they needed to do.
"Hindi kami naglaro as a team. Tapos masyado kaming relaxed, tapos nag-focus kami lalo noong sa referee kaysa sa team namin," said Belangel. "So doon kami tumutok kaysa sa game. So 'yun 'yung sinabi sa amin ni Coach Tab, tapos 'yun, bounce back."
With Baldwin at the helm of their team, Mike is sure that they will not fall for the same traps that they did back in their high school days.
"Si Coach Tab, hindi papayag na mag-underachieve kami during that span na magpapahinga kami," he said.
Matt added: "Knowing Coach Tab, his mind and everything, for sure he's loving this sweep. Kasi dito siya nag-iisip, dito kami makakapahinga… We're just excited kung sinong makalaban, and we'll be waiting."
Game 1 of the best-of-3 Finals is on November 16. The stepladder semifinals start on Wednesday, with No. 3 Far Eastern University taking on No. 4 University of Santo Tomas; the winner advances to play twice-to-beat University of the Philippines on November 10.
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