By Eriko dela Cruz
This was how outside sources built up this season for the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Rightfully so, since they lost the title by the slimmest of margins, and in the dying seconds of an overtime game. Contrary to popular belief however, their revenge tour did not start in October.
It will just start on December 11, 2022.
Knowing Coach Tab Baldwin and the Blue Eagle Band of Brothers, they would not dare disrespect the other six teams not named the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons. They have shown flashes of dominance, owning the best net rating in the league (+12.3). They have shown vulnerability, however, losing to the DLSU Green Archers and the defending champions UP Fighting Maroons in the first round and the NU Bulldogs in the second round. In two games, the ones against the FEU Tamaraws and the UE Red Warriors, they have shown resilience and composure by winning the game after falling behind almost all game long. They are currently on a seven-game win streak, the longest active streak this season. Ateneo ended the regular season with an 11-3 record, good for first (through quotient) and armed with a twice-to-beat advantage. Ateneo did not need it as a torrid shooting night from the Blue Eagles saw them dispatch 4th seed Adamson in one game, 81-60.
Now, they got what they worked hard for all season long.. Let the revenge season begin.
What are the keys for Ateneo to bring the title back to their side of Katipunan?
Kai Ballungay must be a factor all series long
In the two games the Blue Eagles faced the Fighting Maroons, Kai Ballungay was in foul trouble. This has been a sore point for Ateneo, since he is Ateneo’s most efficient scorer all season long (66.6 TS%). Against the league’s best and most efficient defense, you need all offensive options available for you. As in the second round, Chew Daves and Josh Lazaro would be pivotal in Ateneo’s run. If Kai can manage his fouls and the two aforementioned players show up, it would put the Blue Eagles in a better position offensively.
Become the aggressors
What gave Ateneo the win against their new-age rivals in the second round was an aggression a lot of people have not seen from Ateneo in a long time. It was not a reactionary one, but being the ones to initiate it most of the time. Being the aggressors do not mean just being physical on the court, but to dictate the pace at which the game is played. Slowing the game down plays to the team’s methodical nature, which gives them cleaner looks at the basket.
Bench production on both ends of the court
Almost all season long, Ateneo has been at the bottom of the barrel in terms of bench points. As the season went on, it seemed like Ateneo got their bench to contribute in ways other than scoring. Chris Koon is starting to get his groove as a leading bench scorer and secondary ball handler. Italian Supreme Gab Gomez is getting better at the point guard slot, and runs Coach Tab’s system to a tee. Geo Chiu and Josh Lazaro bring defense and hustle on the floor. The Ateneo Blue Eagles have done a spectacular job delegating roles to the bench, instead of expecting everybody to just make baskets.
Dave Ildefonso needs to go Angel Baby mode
One of the reasons that the Ateneo Blue Eagles had a difficult time against UP in the season 84 Finals was because Dave was not playing at his best. This season, scoring has been a mixed bag for him. In some games, he’s had great scoring performances. In other, his shooting isn’t there. What is good about his role now is that even if Dave’s shots are not falling, he’s taken a page out of Angel Daddy Lakay Danny I and gobbled up rebounds (almost nine a game). Against UP this season, he had 20 and 15 points in the first and second rounds respectively. Ateneo needed every point from him, so his scoring would be crucial all series long.
Reclaim that defensive identity
If we were honest about it, Ateneo has the second-best defensive team in the league. Although it’s not as potent as it was in years past, it has the DNA of a good defensive team. After all, The Blue Eagles’ vaunted third quarter runs are just as much a product of great defense as it is offense. Against the defending champions however, you have to play an almost-perfect defensive game to even have a chance of beating them.In the second round, they forced Zavier Lucero to go 0/11 all game long. With Ange Kouame their anchor down low, and with BJ Andrade patrolling the perimeter, expect Coach Tab and the Blue Eagles to maximize the lineup to throw everything they have to disrupt UP’s offense.
This will be a very tight series, and it will possibly go the distance. The UP Fighting Maroons might be the defending champions, but it would not be wise to bet against Tab Baldwin and a team with a lot to prove and are peaking at the right time. Ateneo in three.
Now the stage is set. Only two teams remain.
Ready, aim, fire.
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