Eagles take flight
There’s always something about the grandest stage in Philippine collegiate basketball that brings out the best in Ateneo’s graduating star Thirdy Ravena.
Last season, it was the dramatic rise of University of the Philippines that Ravena helped stop on its tracks.
This year, Ravena is just simply bent on leaving a lasting legacy at Katipunan, while reminding the University of Santo Tomas that the UAAP men’s basketball finals remains the Blue Eagles’ domain much like the past three seasons.
Buoyed by Ravena’s virtuoso performance, the Blue Eagles ran the Growling Tigers to the ground with their debilitating attack to come away with an emphatic 91-77 victory that pushed Ateneo to the brink of a perfect season Saturday night at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“It’s my last year and I don’t want to say that by the end of the season I didn’t give my all,” Ravena said after finishing with a season-high 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting in Game 1.
“I am ready to do whatever it takes to help Ateneo win a title and make the Ateneo community happy.”
The performance brought back memories of Ravena’s 38-point explosion last season when Ateneo clinched a second straight title at the expense of UP.
A focused and motivated Ravena proved too much for the Tigers, who were hoping to ride the momentum of three consecutive wins in knockout matches. In front of a sellout crowd of 19,174 fans, Ateneo came out razor-sharp from a 16-day break with Ravena scoring 11 quick points as the reigning champions raced to an 18-2 advantage in the first five minutes that set the tone for the rout against a UST team that was making its first finals appearance in four seasons.
“I just saw plenty of openings and I couldn’t see the help side defense,” he said. “The mentality is to take it strong because good things will happen when you do it. You can make defenders commit. It just gives you a lot of options when you take it strong [to the rim].”
The Eagles closed out on the Tigers’ shooters, hardly giving them good looks at the basket, while Ange Kouame forced misses at the rim and setting off a transition attack that led to 23 fast-break points.
“Coach Tab [Baldwin] really prepared us hard for this game to the point that he was draining us in our practices,” Ravena said. “We knew it was going to be a fast game against UST and we really needed to match their energy.”
Baldwin said improving his team’s fitness levels was crucial during their long break.
“Our preparation was tough,” Baldwin said. “I told the team after we finished the elimination round that I didn’t think we were fit enough. We did a lot of running and sprints, a lot of work on our fitness. We had to pump those legs.”
A win away from an unprecedented 16-0 campaign, Baldwin refused to be drawn into a talk of a perfect season.
“It’s a must-win game,” Baldwin said, referring to Game 2. “I don’t think our attitude has to change because there’s history or a record. We just have to go out and win the game.”
The Tigers did show character in clawing their way back from an early deficit with Rookie of the Year Mark Nonoy finding his range from beyond the arc.
Nonoy’s fifth triple trimmed Ateneo’s lead to 41-38 late in the second quarter but the Eagles, much like what they did this season, found an even more devastating counterpunch. This time, it was SJ Belangel who delivered telling hits that doused the comeback as Ateneo closed the half with a 13-1 run for a 54-39 lead.
Kouame recorded 18 points and 14 boards, while Belangel tallied 12 points with all of his baskets coming from beyond the arc.
Nonoy pumped in a career-high 26 points, but only Brent Paraiso and Soulemane Chabi Yo finished in twin digits for the Tigers, severely blunting their attack. The Tigers made 14 of their 41 three-point attempts with Nonoy going 7-of-14, but Rhenz Abando, Renzo Subido and CJ Cansino combined for only 15 points for UST.
Tigers coach Aldin Ayo said he’s taking full responsibility over the Game 1 loss, saying that he wasn’t able to prepare the team well enough against Ateneo, just three days after completing their reversal over UP in the stepladder semifinals.
“The finals is a different atmosphere,” said Ayo, who has nine rookies in his team. “We’re going to be patient and we cannot blame the players because its the job of the coaching staff to simulate these things. We have to be accountable.”
But Baldwin knows only too well what to expect from a UST team that has bucked the odds just to make the finals this season.
“UST is a persistent team and everyone saw that today,” Baldwin said.
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