Like a phoenix from its ashes, the Blue Eagles of Ateneo de Manila University are making a strong comeback from a lackluster start in the ongoing University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 79 men’s basketball tournament. The blue and white squad from Loyola recently claimed its fifth win in a row after drubbing host University of Santo Tomas, 74-64. The 8-time league kings have done so well in the last few weeks that they’re now at solo second spot, just behind archrival De La Salle, and close to gaining the twice-to-beat incentive in the coming semis.
At the start of the season, most observers thought Ateneo wouldn’t go too far, especially after academic woes forced some prize recruits out of the Blue Eagles’ camp. They were supposed to have a heavily talented crew this year with the likes of 2014 UAAP top rookie Arvin Tolentino, former UAAP high school standouts Hubert Cani and Jerry Pinggoy, and former San Sebastian hotshot CJ Perez to name a few. But the school had to let them go just a few months before Season 79 commenced. Even former Xavier School ace Tyler Tio was declared ineligible this year because of citizenship issues. First year Eagles coach Tab Baldwin had to make major adjustments to cover for these heavy losses in personnel. But now, it seems they have finally found the right formula after struggling in the early goings.
The Eagles actually started the second round with a shocking loss to the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, who last won over Ateneo in 2009. This setback was so heartbreaking that many believed it would be all downhill from then on. Instead, the Blue Eagles used it to fuel a spirited rally in the second round that eventually turned the tables for them.
There’s surely no better way of displaying their rejuvenated campaign than the humongous upset of erstwhile-unbeaten La Salle Green Archers in their second round collision. Everybody was already expecting a La Salle sweep after imposing victories that include a mortifying 97-81 manhandling of Ateneo in the first round. But in the second meeting, the Blue Eagles returned the favor with an emphatic 83-71 triumph. Before that rematch, La Salle was 12-0 after thrashing all its opponents with a double digit winning margin average. The Archers even pummeled Santo Tomas by a mind-boggling 43 points in the second round.
But Ateneo was not having any of that first round humiliation again. The Blue Eagles were the aggressors in the rematch, attacking the hoop at every opportunity, which was in striking contrast from the first round duel. Sure, La Salle’s “mayhem” defense still forced Ateneo into 26 turnovers, which produced 27 turnover points. But in several occasions, the Eagles are able to get easy baskets from a successful press break. Ateneo had 50 inside points, 22 perimeter markers and 16 fast break points in the game to obtain a remarkable 50.77% in total field goals. Even more impressive was the Eagles’ defense, limiting the Archers to a season low 28.75% shooting, and making life hard for super import Ben Mbala. Ateneo actually led at some point by as many as 18. The Archers led just once throughout the game, at 5-0.
After putting a stain on La Salle’s previously unblemished record, Ateneo scored back-to-back upset wins with a 74-59 rout of defending champion and second-running Far Eastern University. One more game remains for the Eagles, which is against another team on the rise – Adamson University – on November 16.
Despite a very young and inexperienced roster, composed of five rookies and seven sophomores, the Blue Eagles are peaking at the right time and proving to be a force to be reckoned with in the Final Four. Having Baldwin as chief bench tactician is certainly a huge plus for Ateneo. Of all basketball coaches in the country today, he has the most admirable credentials, having piloted New Zealand to a fourth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship, which remains the highest achievement for any Oceania national team to date.
The Blue Eagles have come a long way from their flimsy start. And they continue to soar higher in Season 79.