It’s SJ Time

With 7:01 remaining in the 4th quarter, SJ Belangel converted on a pull-up jumper off pick and roll action. It was his first points of the contest, which shouldn’t be too noteworthy, right? Except, when you consider the context SJ’s in right now, it suddenly becomes something for fans of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

The defending UAAP champions are in a transition period. While they retained Ivorian foreign student-athlete Ange Kouame, they did lose the likes of Thirdy Ravena, Matt Nieto, Mike Nieto, Adrian Wong, and Isaac Go. Most glaring among those names are Ravena and Ma. Nieto. Ateneo didn’t just lose two proud products of the Blue Eagles’ homegrown program. Their graduation also meant Ateneo no longer had seasoned veterans they could go to when the going got tough during games. They needed a go-to guy.

Analysts have begun to scoff at the notion of hero basketball, especially in today’s era of pace and space and team basketball, and why not? Basketball is a team sport and players connecting with one another is not only more efficient, but also more pleasing to the eyes. Five will always be greater than one.

Here’s the problem, however, with relying too much on team basketball or amazing, flowing sets; humans aren’t perfect! There will always come a time when players, as seasoned as they may be, won’t be able to run complicated action to get two points. That’s most evident during the clutch when the pressure amps up. Your mind shifts its gear from fifth to first. You can’t beat the traffic by just running over cars, right? That would be illegal. Thus, the importance of the go-to guy.

Sometimes, you need someone to direct you in the simplest of ways. It doesn’t have to be with a multitude of screens of curls or cuts to the rim. A simple pick and roll and dump to the post can do the trick, especially when all you need are two points. Ateneo had that for the last three years with Matt’s craft and Thirdy’s overall excellence. Who could they go to now?

During the NCAA-UAAP Challenge, SJ introduced himself as a potential option. It started versus San Beda when he torched the Red Lions for 25 points in just 18 minutes of playing time. Belangel then followed it up with a 26-point outburst against the UST Growling Tigers. The point totals were overwhelming, but what was particularly impressive was how he was getting these numbers.

He wasn’t just scoring off skip passes from Tyler or simple cuts to the rim. Belangel was straight up creating his own baskets. From being a shy kid scared of the Pumaren press, he transformed into a human flamethrower during the mini tournament. It didn’t matter if you’d hedge, double, or even put Soulemane Chabi Yo on him. He’d always find a way to get his buckets.

We suddenly were led to wonder, “Oh my god. So THIS is the guy who scored 99 points in Bacolod?” However, another question that needed answering was, “This isn’t too good to be true, right?”

It’s a reasonable question. First and foremost, teams just treat it as a preseason tournament. They don’t show their best stuff against their competition here. Second, the shots SJ was making were REALLY difficult. He’s not Steph Curry, right? There’s no way he was going to be shooting hesi pull-up jimbos against the out-stretched arms of foreign-student athletes for an entire season. He was bound to cool off. And the doubters couldn’t have been more correct.

During the first three quarters of the PCCL Finals, Belangel was atrocious. San Beda always kept their eye on him by sending multiple defenders to his face. SJ struggled. He committed several turnovers while missing the threes he was making in his previous games. We got our answer: It was too good to be true.

But then we go back to the 7:01 mark of the fourth quarter. SJ scores his first two points of the game off a mid-range jumper. Here’s the thing with go-to guys: their secret isn’t their efficiency. Instead, it lies in their ability to dig deep to simply find ways to get baskets. That’s what go-to guys are for. With the Blue Eagles facing a 45-41 deficit at that point, they badly needed someone to help lead them to victory. Maybe SJ could be that guy.

When SJ was in High School, his teammates coined a term inspired by Damian Lillard: SJ Time. It symbolized not only SJ’s penchant for taking over games but the team’s trust that their captain would always find a way to lead his team to victory. He wouldn’t always win games for them. But they couldn’t deny he had the heart and the guts to take responsibility for wins and more importantly, losses.

It was only his first basket of the game against San Beda. But at that moment, you kind of already knew. It was SJ Time.

SJ woke up right after that jumper. The funny thing was his offense wasn’t where things got started; it was his defense. He’s always been quite the pesky defender but he amped things up by being more aggressive in attacking passing lanes. He was making gambles, but these were smart gambles. One of them paid off, as he stole a pass from Ralph Penuela to get a fast-break bucket to tie the game at 45. We had ourselves a ball game.

Even though this was supposed to be just a preseason game, it didn’t feel like it in the Filoil Flying V Arena. San Beda clearly wanted to beat Ateneo; they hadn’t beaten the Blue Eagles in years! Ateneo, on the other hand, wanted to win back to back. Both teams wanted it, but Ateneo did one thing San Beda didn’t; someone brash enough to make the difficult decisions, just to wake his team up. That was SJ.

Belangel was both relentless and controlled in the way he handled the Blue Eagles during this juncture. On one play, he’d push the fast break and score a crazy and one. Afterward, he’d settle down his team, dump the ball to Will Navarro in the low block, and allow their offense to flow off that simple action. It was from that simplicity that Belangel was able to convert the three which gave Ateneo a 53-46 cushion with 2:40 remaining in the game.

The clock said the game wasn’t over. But Belangel’s demeanor told us otherwise. He had grabbed San Beda by its neck and chokeslammed it to hell. It was both harsh and magnificent.

The result was a championship for the Ateneo Blue Eagles and a masterful fourth-quarter performance by SJ. All in all, he scored 10 points during that seven-minute span versus the five San Beda scored during the entire fourth quarter.

It may not be everything because it is just treated as a preseason game. But we can’t deny that it was something. The entire PCCL tournament run of Ateneo was not only a showcase of the otherworldly talent of SJ Belangel, but it also served as a stage for him to tell the whole world: It’s SJ Time.

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