MANILA, Philippines – The flames flew once again to the heavens at Ateneo de Manila University, in celebration of the school’s remarkable dominance in UAAP basketball.
On the big screen mounted behind Ateneo’s student-athletes who stood on stage, the word “DYNASTY” flashed bright, and it felt fitting.
In the spotlight were the graduating Blue Eagles – who leave an institution they represented proudly – with the label of “legends” next to their names.
Now, here’s the scariest part for the rest of the league – this dynasty might be far from over.
"I thank them," Baldwin said about his departing seniors, with each graduating student seated close to him, moments after they put the final touches on a masterpiece.
"I honor them. I love them. There will always be a place at my dinner table for them under any circumstances. These guys are my friends for life."
If Baldwin sounded emotional, it was because these same guys were about to move on to the next stages of their respective lives, where there is a high chance further success awaits them.
In Ateneo, the torch has been passed to the younger Eagles who will inherit the responsibility of continuing what their veterans started.
Only time will tell if the likes of SJ Belangel, William Navarro, Angelo Kouame, and other promising names can be as great without the safety net which came with their talented teammates in the last 3 years.
But if the early signs are an indication of what’s to manifest, then there’s a powerful chance that bonfires in Loyola Heights will remain a common recurrence this time of the year.
In unsurprising fashion, Aldin Ayo’s UST resisted going down without a fight in Game 2 of the finals. Mark Nonoy and Rhenz Abando, two young Tigers who were unfazed by the UAAP’s biggest stage, took turns performing admirably against favorite Ateneo.
The Blue Eagles eventually sealed the contest thanks to another elite Finals MVP-performance by Ravena, but also thanks to the reliable shooting of SJ Belangel.
Anyone who watched a Blue Eagles game in the last two years was left impressed at a certain point by Belangel, a product of Ateneo’s high school program who entered the seniors division with a basketball IQ higher than usual for a blue-chip recruit his age.
His development has accelerated before our very eyes.
Whenever the defending champions needed a big shot to keep UST within arm’s length in their comeback, it wasn’t a coincidence that the gutsy SJ was the one answering the call. It was simple for him, too. Dribble, pull-up, and swish. He was calm and composed beyond his years.
He’s leapt over the Blue Eagles’ depth chart to become the successor to the versatile Matt Nieto. Hopefully, a new UST-Ateneo rivalry has been born, with Belangel and Nonoy at the forefront of their collisions. That would add some extra intrigue to college hoops in the foreseeable years.
And there’s a good chance Ateneo and UST will meet again in the Finals of Season 83. If fate plays it that way, the Tigers will have the more mature and likely better versions of their current young standouts, who will have more motivation in their hearts following the pain of defeat.
"We certainly know what kind of team they’ll be next year. They’re gonna be extremely difficult, extremely strong basketball team," Baldwin warned before ending his post-championship presser.
The sky is the limit for the likes of Abando and Nonoy, who showed no signs of intimidation against the older reigning champs.
Ateneo, however, can remain just as effective as we’ve grown accustomed to.
Does that mean another undefeated season is in the horizon? History points to no. But here are some notable things to remember:
Gian Mamuyac will be the UAAP’s best perimeter defender as a senior. William Navarro’s two-way game is already deadly. The sharp-shooting Jolo Mendoza and hard-working Raffy Verano are set to return. Matthew Daves is an impact basketball player. He might not be named the MVP, but no one makes opposing schools alter their game plan more than Ang Kouame.
There are also the Ramos brothers from California, Dwight and Eli. The former is eligible only for two seasons as a Blue Eagle, but was already good enough to be named as part of the Gilas 23 for 23 Pool. His brother has all 5 years left, and was included in the US team which competed in the recent NBTC tournament.
There is both interest and excitement in and outside of Ateneo to discover what they are capable of.
Will the best even be better?
Leading the way for this team moving forward will be SJ, who’s next in line in the list of great Ateneo point guards. Baldwin’s trust in him is proof of that, and SJ has yet to give him any reason to doubt that trust.
And, of course, there is still the system that Tab has utilized to take control of the UAAP. Since his arrival, the Blue Eagles have been the most well-coached team on both sides of the floor. Disciplined, precise, and consistent, Ateneo will not beat itself, and is always ready to take advantage of opponents once their weaknesses begin to show.
In a league made of college basketball programs, the Eagles have executed with the prowess of a pro-caliber team. Since Ateneo won its first of 3 straight titles in 2017, the other 7 schools in the UAAP have worked tirelessly to reach the bar which was set high by the champions.
But while they played catch-up, Ateneo somehow raised the bar even higher.
And by the looks of things, the end of this dominant run might be far from over. – Rappler.com