By Eriko C. dela Cruz
As children, we were often taught that aggression was a bad thing. It was bad to instigate physicality, and it would get us in trouble if we did. But as a blonde sensei from a world renowned series said:
Some kids need a little aggression.
It was a throwaway line. It seemed like bad advice from a grownup who seemed stuck in the 80s. But the more you think about it, he was right. In basketball for example, a bit of well-placed, ruthless aggression can get you wins. Case in point, the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
In the past few matchups with the UP Fighting Maroons, Ateneo was often on the backfoot. UP would usually rough them up and they would just end up reacting to what was being thrown at them. In their most recent matchup, the Blue Eagles played the aggressors and relished in the physicality of the game.
The Fighting Maroons were still physical in this game. Having a defensive bulldog (pun may or may not be intended, up to you) in Gerry Abadiano pressuring *that* Ateneo Point Guard or anyone who brings the ball down is a massive luxury. An uber long center in Malick Diouf, a Korea-ready close to generational talent in Carl Tamayo, and the Incredible Hulk wearing a UP jersey in Henry Galinato gives you massive walls in the post. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Ateneo attacked all these and more. They relished the contact and were ready to dish as much. Ateneo’s foul trouble in the power forward position spoke highly of that.
Usually, Ateneo’s play would involve a screen from either Ange Kouame or Kai Ballungay at the three point line. UP countered that in the first round by blitzing out of the screen to pressure the ball. Now, Ateneo added a few variations to their offense. They explored starting with high post action at the elbow with Kai, or have Ange seal at the low post then pass out of a double (sometimes triple!) team. This gives the Blue Eagles space to either have BJ shoot from the outside, Dave Ildefonso initiate an attack by rolling downhill, or just Ange do some Ange things.
For every UP run, there was an Ateneo counter-run to keep the game close. As Ateneo padded onto the lead and UP was threatening to come back into the game, the Blue Eagles answered with mini runs of their own fearlessly. Ateneo was playing THEIR game, and not letting the opponent control the tempo.
Even when the game turned really physical, the Blue Eagles maintained the slow pace and remained patient. They were not in a hurry to bury UP even more. UP on the other hand, got lost in the magnitude of the game. Harold Alarcon and Henry Galinato in particular were whistled with avoidable technical fouls because of their reactions when things were not particularly going their way. In a game that mattered a lot, the Fighting Maroons lost the composure of champions that got them to the top last season.
The Blue Eagles also found unsung heroes. As Ballungay and Josh Lazaro accumulated some fouls, Matthew Daves stepped up in a HUGE way to fill in the gap. Not only did he fearlessly attack the basket, he even got a fadeaway in; something you would not expect from the Pumpernickel himself. These points were big, especially when you count the fact that he never played big minutes this season.
Gab Gomez, Bellissimo. He is more of an off guard, slotted to play as a point guard out of necessity. When *that* Ateneo Point Guard came down with an injury, he was already making a lot of questionable decisions. When the Italian Supreme took over at point, he steadied the ship. He was more methodical in attacking, using the picks given to him very effectively. He even took a shot from dead center himself as he got open.
Finally, Angel Baby Dave Ildefonso. For a few games now, it seems like he is taking time to warm up to really get going. But when he does, man he is such a joy to watch. He scored just as much in the third quarter as the whole UP team combined. In the fourth, with just a little over seven minutes left, He drilled a three and sniffed the smoke out of his fingers so hard that his TikTok fans wished they were those digits. You could see the intensity and will to win against UP, without being distracted by the unnecessary stuff.
With a game vs the Adamson Soaring Falcons left, Coach Tab and the Blue Eagles are poised to cement their Number One slot coming into the Final Four. You can see it in the team. They are not about to go on the backfoot again. They are getting their plays and rotations down pat. They are not dodging anybody. They will take on any comers that will hinder them from completing this revenge tour.
The Blue Eagles have Ruthless Aggression. Let’s see if it can be enough for them to become the face that runs the place.