Two perfect seasons and an improbable championship marked 2019 in collegiate basketball, with the Ateneo Blue Eagles and National
U Lady Bulldogs completing season sweeps in the UAAP and the Letran Knights overcoming the odds to reclaim the title in the NCAA.
Each championship run had its own, unique storyline, but Ateneo, NU and Letran
all shared the same relentless and unyielding drive to reach the top.
The Blue Eagles set out chasing the “greatest team” tag at the start of the season—and duly made their case with an efficient yet ruthless display capped by a hard-fought win over University of Santo Tomas in the finals.
The Lady Bulldogs carried the weight of a perfect record in the last five years heading into the season—and delivered as promised. The season finished with NU extending its run to 96 victories—a winning streak unheard of in collegiate basketball.
“We’re just happy with everything: six tiles in six years with no losses,” said NU coach Pat Aquino, who later in the year also steered the women’s national team to a first gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games.
The burden of expectation wasn’t as heavy on the Knights in the NCAA. It belonged to the San Beda Red Lions, who grabbed the last three titles.
But when the Knights entered the finals after stunning second seed Lyceum, Letran had already transformed into a formidable and ferocious unit that showed no fear against the three-time reigning champions. A bunch of players who were all eager to prove they were worthy of second chances took the cudgels for Letran.
Jerrick Balanza, who only a year ago underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, returned to power the Knights in the biggest of games, while Bonbon Batiller and Fran Yu, outcasts from their previous schools, came to the fore with heroic performances in Letran’s 18th title and second in five seasons.
“People doubted we could win Game 3, but as the captain of this team, we motivated ourselves to win,” said Balanza, who fired 27 points in the 81-79 victory in the series decider at Mall of Asia Arena on Nov. 19.
“It was difficult defeating San Beda, but nothing is impossible,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan, who had buddies Alfrancis Chua, Pido Jarencio and Jeff Napa, among others, as part of his brain trust during the season. “We just believed in ourselves that we could do it.”
There was no shortage in belief and trust within the Blue Eagles camp, too, as they rolled to a 14-game sweep of the elimination round. While Ateneo kept racking up victories, University of the Philippines provided the drama for most of the season with its narrow victories. For a team littered with talent, the Fighting Maroons labored to claim the No. 2 seed. But the season also saw the resurgence of the Growling Tigers powered by Most Valuable Player Soulemane Chabi Yo and newcomers Mark Nonoy and Rhenz Abando. The Growling Tigers also had a magical run, taking down the Maroons in the Final Four, but ran into an Ateneo team that hardly missed a beat even with a 16-day break heading into the finals.
Thirdy Ravena takes his game to another level in the finals in the last two seasons and it was no different in the championship round as the Ateneo star dominated the series for Finals MVP honors.
“The best feeling is to win it for one another,” Ravena said after averaging 24.5 points and six rebounds as the Eagles completed the sweep with an 86-79 romp.
“This is for the entire team. This 16-0 showed that our strength doesn’t lie on 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.”
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin downplayed the idea of a perfect season for the entire campaign, but couldn’t help but rave over the way the Eagles finished off a tremendous run.
“It is really something we dreamed about but we hardly talked about,” Baldwin said.
“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. But these players are more than just basketball players. They’re exceptional young men. They sacrifice their egos. Sacrifice their time. What they did not sacrifice is their love for the game.”
The finals turned out to be a showcase of the Eagles’ poise, composure and aggressiveness. It was, indeed, a collective show of force.
“We promised to do whatever it takes to win,” captain Mike Nieto said. “We just exemplified to become better versions of ourselves, day in and day out.”