MANILA, Philippines—The Ateneo Blue Eagles etched their names in the history books on Wednesday after completing an unprecedented campaign in the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament.
In front of a crowd of over 20,000 fans at Mall of Asia Arena, the Blue Eagles secured an 86-79 triumph over University of Santo Tomas in Game 2 of the finals to put the finishing touches in arguably the most dominant campaign ever in collegiate basketball.
The Blue Eagles went a perfect 16-0 in the season, the first men's basketball team to achieve the feat.
They closed in on the achievement after routing UST, 91-77, in Game 1 last Saturday, and left no doubt with another victory in Game 2 for Ateneo's third straight title, and 11th overall in the UAAP.
Thirdy Ravena followed up his explosive Game 1 performance by scoring 17 points along with 7 rebounds and 5 assists, in the process winning Finals MVP for the third consecutive season.
SJ Belangel was sensational, too, tallying a career-best 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from behind the arc, while quelling the Growling Tigers' rallies in the fourth quarter with timely long-range bombs. Matt Nieto, in his final game for the Blue and White, had 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists.
"Ang unang sabi ko lang sa team, para sa Game 2, hinding-hindi kami magpapatalo ngayon," said Nieto. "Gagawa kami ng history. Thank you sa aking teammates na nag-step up sila, and dinedicate nila ang laro para sa amin. Ateneo, thank you for the trust."
It was far from the dominant victory that Ateneo registered in the first game, as the Growling Tigers showed no signs of quitting. They repeatedly cut into the deficit, and even made it a one-point game early on in the fourth period.
But the Blue Eagles simply had too much firepower, and they pulled away once again behind the combined strength of Ravena, Nieto and Ange Kouame, before settling for the 7-point victory.
Kouame struggled with foul trouble all game long, but was fresh in the final quarter and played a huge role in holding off the Growling Tigers' charge. He finished with 7 points and 8 rebounds. Ateneo, as a team, shot 45.21% from the field, and knocked down 11 three-pointers.
"(A) 16-0 season, it really is something that we dreamed about," said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, who has led the Blue Eagles to the finals every year since he took over in 2016.
"We didn't talk a lot about it, but I know the players dream about it, and it is a dream season," he added.
Much like the first game, the Blue Eagles got off to a fast start and led 31-18 after the opening quarter. Unlike the first game, when Ravena did the heavy lifting, this time around the Blue Eagles got scoring from a variety of sources, from Ravena to Belangel to Isaac Go.
But UST clawed its way back in the second period, with Season 82 MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo taking advantage of Kouame's absence due to fouls. The Tigers entered the break down by just 10 points, 42-32.
Rhenz Abando, who struggled mightily in Game 1, waxed hot in the third period and pushed UST even closer. He drilled a 3-pointer with 2:08 left to make it a five-point game, 62-57, and Mark Nonoy added a 3-point play for a 62-60 count with 1:34 to go.
Ateneo, however, had an answer. Belangel drilled a huge 3-pointer, and Mike Nieto and Go hit one free throw each to keep the Blue Eagles in control, 67-62, entering the payoff period.
Buckets by Dave Ando and CJ Cansino made it a one-point game, 67-66, with 7:49 left, but Ateneo showed no signs of panic. Belangel again came up big, drilling a crucial three-pointer to make it a four-point game. Ravena added a midrange jumper for a 72-66 spread, forcing Aldin Ayo to sue for time.
Even the break in action could not cool down the Blue Eagles, however. Bolstered by Kouame's return, they uncorked 8 straight points, capped by a Kouame slam dunk, for an 83-71 lead with 2:22 to go. The Ateneo gallery started celebrating with around a minute to go, when Ravena sliced into the lane for a layup that gave them an 86-76 advantage.
In the final minute, UST displayed the tremendous heart that got them to the Finals in the first place. They forced Ateneo to back-to-back turnovers, with Abando fishing fouls from Ravena and Adrian Wong and knocking down three of his four free throws.
In the end, however, it was too little, too late. Ateneo forced a stop in UST's final possession, and Ange Kouame dribbled the clock away before passing the ball off to Ravena, who threw the rock to the air as the buzzer sounded and confetti dropped all over the court.
"Sobrang sarap ng feeling," said an emotional Thirdy Ravena after the game. "Ibang klaseng feeling 'to."
The Blue Eagles poured onto the court, finally celebrating wildly after a historic campaign that saw them march through the elimination round unencumbered. They won their elimination round game by an average of more than 17 points per game, before routing the Tigers in Game 1 and then displaying their defensive prowess and poise to hold on for the win in Game 2.
Ateneo is now the first men's basketball to ever go a perfect 16-0 in a season. Ravena, the Nieto twins, Wong, and Go all graduate as champions, having led the Blue Eagles to a 26-match winning streak, dating back to last season.
Abando finished with 16 points, shooting 5-of-7 from the field, while Nonoy — UST's hero in Game 1 — had 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting along with 5 assists. Chabi Yo finished with a double-double of 11 points and 19 rebounds.
The Tigers shot just 37.5% from the field, including only 8-of-31 from three.
Nonetheless, it was still a season to remember for the Growling Tigers. They returned to the Final 4 as the fourth seed after missing out last season, and knocked off Far Eastern University in the stepladder to set up a showdown with University of the Philippines.
UST exhibited its mastery of the Fighting Maroons in the stepladder semis, twice beating the fancied UP squad with graduating point guard Renzo Subido drilling a three-pointer in the do-or-die game to send them to the Finals.
In the end, however, they still did not have enough to take down the mighty Blue Eagles, who are now kings of the UAAP for the third season in a row.
"I appreciate all of them, and I respect them all so much," Baldwin said of the Aldin Ayo-coached Growling Tigers. "We certainly know what kind of team they're gonna be next year. They're gonna be an extremely strong basketball team."
ATENEO 86 -- Ravena 17, Belangel 14, Ma. Nieto 14, Kouame 7, Navarro 7, Go 6, Maagdenberg 6, Wong 5, Daves 4, Mi. Nieto 3, Mamuyac 2, Andrade 0.
UST 79 -- Abando 16, Nonoy 14, Chabi Yo 11, Concepcion 8, Subido 8, Huang 7, Ando 6, Paraiso 5, Cansino 4, Bataller 0, Pangilinan 0.
Quarters: 31-18, 42-32, 67-62, 86-79.
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