The win looked as easy as that sounded.
The Blue Eagles scored the first eight points, four coming off two emphatic rim-rattlers from superstar swingman Thirdy Ravena and simply ran the Tamaraws down from thereon to set up a shot at defending their men’s basketball crown.
Ateneo will face either No. 2 Adamson U or No. 3 University of the Philippines, who are locked in a semifinal duel that seemed to have a monopoly on Final Four drama.
“Any team, UP or Adamson, I think is gonna be tough,” said assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga in his usual pitch-in chores for coach Tab Baldwin at the post-game presser.
“Both are deserving to make it to the Finals. We have to prepare for any team [because] anyone is a formidable opponent in the Finals.”
No matter how formidable either the Falcons or the Maroons are, none of them have looked as sharp and as dominating as the Blue Eagles were versus the Tamaraws.
When Matt Nieto and Angelo Kouame joined Ravena in the scoring fray, Ateneo further throttled FEU and erected a 17-point lead in the first half. Ravena and Kouame had outscored the entire FEU team after two quarters.
“We knew coming into the game that we were up against a tough FEU team… we got off to a good start and we made sure there were no dips in our performance,” said Arespacochaga.
Recent history shows Arespacochaga was right about FEU. Sunday’s duel proved otherwise.
FEU had always been a necessary thorn for Ateneo. The Tamaraws pushed the Blue Eagles to the limit in last year’s Final Four, forcing Ateneo to burn their twice-to-beat advantage and falling one defensive stop short of ousting the eventual champions.
In this season’s first round, FEU dealt Ateneo a stunning upset that catapulted the Tams into championship discussion.
“We’ve been playing them for four semifinals now,” Ravena said in Filipino. “They’re always hungrier than us, that’s why they’ve pushed us to the brink. They’ve got nothing to lose and that’s what makes them scary.”
Ravena and his teammates wiped out that fear emphatically, building leads of as many as 31 before toning down on their cut-throat approach to the game. By the time Ateneo was done, there was a lot of rubble to survey in the wake of its performance.
Nobody over at the Tams’ side was able to produce in double digits. Arvin Tolentino, the hero in FEU’s playoff game against La Salle, was held to just five points in his final game as a Tamaraw.
“I’m to blame,” FEU coach Olsen Racela said. “I didn’t put them on a position to succeed. It took a while bago kami naka-buwelo.”
Racela can shoulder the blame all he wants but it is highly unlikely any other coach with any other team could have fared better with the kind of tenacity and talent Ateneo flashed.
Ravena fouled out in the final 3:33 of the game but still accounted for 22 points and seven rebounds.