From Undesirable to Undeniable: The Underdog story of the Ateneo Blue Eagles

By Eriko dela Cruz

Moments before taking the floor for game three, a voice rang through the South Gate hallway:

“We have a chance to make our own story today.”

After losing the UAAP season 84 title in a heartbreaking fashion, the Ateneo Blue Eagles suddenly encountered its very first crossroads; a huge chunk of the people who made the program very successful decided to move on. SJ Belangel, Tyler Tio, Raffy Verano, Gian Mamuyac, and Jolo Mendoza all decided to forgo their remaining years to search for greener pastures (and rightfully so).

BJ Andrade, who initially decided to call it a career as a Blue Eagle, reneged and played his final year as captain. A giant hurdle however, faced his captainship.

For the first time since Season 81, the Ateneo Blue Eagles were no longer the favorites to win the championship. Some of their opponents did not even respect them enough to include them in their Final Four predictions. In the eyes of the people, this was probably the weakest Blue Eagle team in quite a while.

Other people were starting to make stories.

Ateneo did not get to participate in local pre-season leagues, due to prior commitments. One of those commitments was the World University Basketball Series in Japan. People had their questions on the motive of joining the league. “Why are they joining a league overseas and not in the Philippines? They have to prepare the Fil-Ams for the Pinoy game!” This is a rather fair take, since local basketball is a tad more physical than overseas. Still, it seems like the narrative was not controlled by the Blue Eagles.

As the first round progressed, Ateneo was showing glimpses of being a good team. However, there was still a question mark hanging around as they lost to La Salle and UP. A semifinal stint was in the cards, but is that the farthest they could go? Mamarus and analysts alike had their takes. Ateneo is good but might come up short. The Blue Eagles are very top heavy; they have an immensely talented starting unit but the bench isn’t as productive. Even with the Ateneo faithful themselves, there was some doubt creeping in. The only ones who truly believed they could make it were the ones taking the court everyday.

The start of the second round saw Ateneo lose another game, this time to the up-and-coming NU Bulldogs. The doubts that people had with this team suddenly heightened. People were already pressing the panic button.

And then the Blue Eagles won against La Salle. And then they won more. And more. They even won a highly physical and emotional game against UP in the second round. At the end of the second round, Ateneo was on a six game win streak and in first place. Even then, people believed that the UP Fighting Maroons were still heavily favored to repeat. After all, Ateneo has finished many elimination rounds at number one and failed to get the title. To get to the finals, they had to beat an Adamson team who captured the minds and hearts of the UAAP faithful. Safe to say that it was Ateneo against the world in the Final Four.

Too bad for Jerom Lastimosa and the Soaring Falcons, Ateneo were looking at their own destiny. Buoyed by torrid shooting in the third quarter, they finished the Final Four in one game, setting up a date with the defending champions.

At the post-game press conference, Coach Tab Baldwin came up with two quotes that rocked social media. The first one was when he called his team the underdogs coming into the finals. As much as UP fans did not want to admit it, there was truth to what the man said. As much as Ateneo has made 15 finals appearances in the past 25 years, the present was what mattered. In season 85, UP was the machine. They were the top dogs of the UAAP. They had the deepest team in the league, with third stringers even possible starters in other universities. In short, the Fighting Maroons were in Ateneo’s position years ago. 

The second was this. “I want the Ateneo faithful behind this team because this team has already surpassed a lot of the expectations of them, and even to be fair, of the coaching staff. But the good thing is they haven’t surpassed their own. And that’s a credit to them.”

This was very telling. For Coach Tab and the coaching staff, they were not expecting the team to be back in the finals but took on the challenge to get these young men to where they wanted to go. Now, the revenge tour begins. Time to get back what they lost in May.

In game one, The Blue Eagles kept in step with the Fighting Maroons. The major problem for them was their shooting, as it was very difficult for them to buy a basket. Call it finals jitters, or maybe reaching their ceiling too soon, it was a difficult day for Ateneo. Zavier Lucero, a guy who they limited to a 0/11 outing in the second round, became a problem on both ends of the floor. He was making his shots, crashing the boards, even getting two blocks on Chris Koon and Ange Kouame. Kai Ballungay did not have a lot of opportunities, and in the end Ateneo buckled 72-66.

Just like last season, Ateneo had their backs against the wall. Fortunately, the Blue Eagles from the not-so-distant past gave the current team a visit to get their heads back in the game, as well as remind them what BEBOB really meant.. Having the best coach when it comes to game adjustments can also pay a lot of dividends.

In game two, the Blue Eagles looked more like brothers on the floor. They were playing a little more loosely. No excessive celebrations. One can see the determination in their eyes. When things got chippy, they had each other’s backs and simply got going. Every play they executed said We will see you guys on Monday. They looked like the elite team that they were before Coronavirus. The crowd, who has been generally stoic all season, matched the rabid UP fans.

Kai Ballungay mentioned in his post-game interview that seeing the brotherhood that the BEBOB has forged through the years inspired him to play better.

“I really took that to heart and wanted to show that type of brotherhood, something we can look up to, with what they’ve built from years past. Game 1 didn’t go the way I wanted it, the way this team wanted it, but coming in tonight, I just wanted to get back in whatever way I could.”

According to statistics savant and friend of site Ryan Alba, prior to Season 85, the team that won game one had an 81.5% chance to win the title. According to UAAP’s statistics king Pong Ducanes, Ateneo has never won a title after losing game one. Safe to say, history and statistics were not on Ateneo’s side. But to quote Team Captain and King Eagle BJ Andrade, hindi pa ‘to tapos. Statistics be damned. Ateneo went go for glory.

As the Blue Eagles equalized, the doubts were slowly being eased. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. There was an energy of “Wow we can actually win this thing.” Did Lucero’s injury have anything to do with it? Partly, yes. Zav was a very crucial part in Coach Gold’s rotation, and missing him for the final game would mean a lot of changes to the preparation. More of the feeling of a victory being possible comes from the confidence being exuded by the team. Now, people are rallying behind the story the Ateneo Blue Eagles were writing.

In game three, Coach Tab and the team knew the UP Fighting Maroons like the back of their hands. They started like a house on fire and never looked back. If Geo Chiu can hit a step-in three-pointer on your team, best believe that the Ateneo Blue Eagles knew they were hot. For every run that UP made, Ateneo had a counter-run that closed the door. Even if the Fighting Maroons were clawing their way back into the game, Ateneo had great defensive stops that stopped the bleeding.

Credit to coach Gold for having the presence of mind to field Lucero in and shoot the technical free throw. It was a great way to get his flowers from the UP and Ateneo crowd, and a fitting way to send him off to wherever he goes next.

As the final buzzer sounded, the revenge season was complete. No one expected them to be there but themselves, yet there they were. Like a few months ago tears flowed, but these tears are not of joy. For Jacob Lao, BJ Andrade, Dave Ildefonso, and Ange Kouame, it was a perfect end to their UAAP careers. One set of seniors had to take home silver, and it wasn’t them. 

The pandemic has changed the dynamic of how camaraderie is formed in these Blue Eagles. Before the ‘Rona, the Blue Eagles would go to Baler, Aurora for what coach Tab calls a “bootcamp”. This is the time when the Blue Eagles go through tribulations that if one asks the players, would be more than the season itself. It was from this bootcamp that the Blue Eagle Band of Brothers (BEBOB) was formed.

BEBOB is not just a term. It’s not just a moniker by the team. It is a name forged through difficulties, and as a result, they have reached the mountaintop of the UAAP several times. Before the season ended, this current iteration of Blue Eagles learned what BEBOB really meant, and they now have something to show for it.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles wrote their own story, and could not have written a better ending for themselves.

They got adrenaline in their soul, molded by the Atenean dreams of those that came before them. From getting counted out, to being the Elite. From undesirable to un-goddamn-deniable. They are the Ateneo Blue Eagle Band of Brothers, Champions of UAAP Season 85.

But the job does not end there. Next season, Batang Gilas wunderkind Mason Amos and (potentially) human highlight reel Francis Lopez join the fold. More recruits are expected to make their debuts. After a few months being underdogs, the Atenean Nightmare that plagued the league will be back.

For this season at least, we bid you adieu. Goodbye, *blows a kiss*, AND GOOD NIGHT, BANG.

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