Hear Them Roar: Kean Baclaan, Jake Figueroa, and the NU Bulldogs are the present of the UAAP

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter

Dancing through the fire

‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar

Louder, louder than a lion

‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar

The gago gene was on full display. Kiefer Ravena. RJ Abarrientos. Now Kean Baclaan.

With four minutes remaining, off a pick and roll with Malick Diouf, Kean Baclaan pulled up from three. In a game as tight as UP-NU, it felt brash to take that shot at that moment. There was still time left on the shot clock to generate better offense. The jumper Kean took wasn’t exactly the cleanest of looks.

But he took it anyway. Swoosh. That gave the Bulldogs the lead, 59-56. While turning around, Baclaan couldn’t help but roar like a tiger. A fighter who was taking it to the Fighting Maroons.

During that specific instance, it felt like a moment. With the game going back and forth, any psychological advantage would have been beneficial for either team. Makes like that do wonders for a team’s confidence. Momentum was clearly on NU’s side. It felt like the game was theirs for the taking…

… until it wasn’t.

With the Fighting Maroons showing their championship resolve and the Bulldogs’ youth causing them to make costly errors during the last two minutes of the game, UP found a way to escape and book a seat back to the Finals.

By the end of the game, the moment was obviously with UP and their MVP, Malick Diouf. But as a basketball fan, you couldn’t help but marvel at what the NU Bulldogs had achieved this season.

After finishing sixth during Season 84 and losing some key pieces, they made the jump this year and established themselves as a dark horse contender for the UAAP championship. Dark horse. A title normally reserved either for teams with raw, young pieces or a grizzled, veteran team that’s slowly finding its footing in the league.

The Bulldogs were the former. A lot of the names they boasted of, outside of John Lloyd Clemente, were up-and-coming players who were still finding their place in the crazy world of college basketball. Paul Palacielo. Ian Manansala. Omar John. Steve Nash Enriquez. Jake Figueroa. Kean Baclaan.

They boasted of arguably the deepest roster in the entire UAAP but they were lacking just one thing: superstar-ready talent who could elevate them to the mountaintop.

That’s why Kean’s shot against the Fighting Maroons felt like a moment. For a player to take AND make a contested pull-up three in a critical moment of a game requires incredible skill, extreme confidence, and most importantly, guts; all qualities of a superstar-ready talent. It was the cherry on top of the delicious sundae he built that entire game versus the Fighting Maroons on masterful playmaking and genius creativity on display the whole game.

Baclaan wasn’t the only player showing superstar-ready qualities. Supporting Kean was a player who may have lacked singular, memorable moments versus UP, but made up for it with incredible, all-around excellence that was on display all throughout the game.

Jake Figueroa was making a leap. From steady, young talent, who did the little things, the former UAAP Juniors MVP was putting on a showcase against the giants of the Fighting Maroons. He looked like the kind of athletic, skilled wing any UAAP team would want to have in their teams. Incredible effort on the boards, feasting on transition opportunities when the opportunity presented itself, and providing elite perimeter coverage on the defensive end. This was the Figueroa Soaring Falcons fans wanted to keep and Bulldogs fans now get to enjoy.

Both their efforts may not have been enough to propel the Bulldogs to a do-or-die against the Fighting Maroons and that’s okay. Kean’s shot may have not been THE moment of the game, but a glass-half-full perspective offers us another moment for NU Bulldogs fans to ponder on: that entire game against the Fighting Maroons was the moment the NU Bulldogs proved they were no longer just the future, but they were the present. They’re a problem other UAAP programs will have to deal with for years to come.

Jeff Napa’s excellent coaching. Kean Baclaan’s playmaking wizardry. Jake Figueroa’s all-around brilliance. NU’s sneaky good program built on elite recruitment and development.

The NU Bulldogs have the eye of the tiger, a fighter, that’s dancing through the fire. Sooner than later, they could be champions, and you’re gonna hear them roar.

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