Thirdy Ravena threw the ball in the air as the buzzer sounded and climbed up the LED board, before raising both hands in front of the Ateneo gallery. A familiar celebration, one he ended by celebrating with his teammates as confetti rained on the floor.
It was a warranted show of joy. The Blue Eagles had chased an elite tag all season—not just champions; not just perfect.
They certainly forced the debate on that label after cementing a dream season with an 86-79 victory over University of Santo Tomas on Wednesday and completing a perfect run to the UAAP Season 82 crown at Mall of Asia Arena.
And having previously offered the first two titles of a three-season domination to the Ateneo community, the Eagles served this one to a group that deserved it the most.
“The best feeling is to win it for one another,” said Ravena, who was named Finals MVP after their sweep of the hard-fighting Tigers.
“This is for the entire team. This 16-0 showed that our strength doesn’t lie in one person. We want to play for one another. The system works because we want to do it not for ourselves, but for each other.”
With graduating star Ravena leading the charge, the Eagles found an answer to every UST run, before unleashing a strong finishing kick that finally took the sting out of the Tigers, who had climbed their way out of a grueling stepladder semifinals to set a championship date with the Eagles.
“It is really something we dreamed about but we hardly talked about,” said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.
“It’s really a dream season. You have to guard against arrogance. You have to guard against overstating the pretty exceptional because it’s still a basketball game. It’s still a basketball season. But these players are more than just basketball players. They’re exceptional young men. They sacrificed their ego. They sacrificed their time. What they did not sacrifice is their love for the game.”
All to meet a goal they set before even hitting the court this season. Skipper Mike Nieto verbalized it loud and clear: Ateneo wanted to be college basketball’s greatest team ever.
Part of the challenge to that claim comes from the school the Eagles beat. Before this perfect season, the last team to bag the UAAP title undefeated was UST, more than two decades ago.
Against this current crop of Tigers, however, there was hardly any debate on who is No. 1. The finals turned out to be a showcase of the Eagles’ poise, composure and aggressiveness. It was, indeed, a collective show of force with Ravena as the spearhead.
Ravena was named Finals MVP for the third straight year after following up his 32-point outburst in Game 1 with a solid 17-point showing in the title-clinching win.
“We promised to do whatever it takes to win,” Nieto said.
The Eagles responded the way champions do every time the Tigers threatened. And it wasn’t just the veterans like Ravena and Nieto who stepped up to the plate when it mattered.
SJ Belangel, the sophomore guard, who was promoted to chief backup to Matt Nieto this season, delivered big shots, none more tremendous than his triple with 7:46 remaining that pushed Ateneo’s lead to 70-66.
Back-to-back baskets by Ravena with 3:51 remaining increased the lead, 79-71, before Ange Kouame scored four straight points to make it 83-71, giving the Eagles some breathing room to weather UST’s final push.
“I want to put it on record that the fight they (Tigers) showed us in the finals really flattered us,” Baldwin said. “We have a lot of respect to what they did this season.”