THE year 2018 is all about Ateneo’s dominance and University of the Philippines’ feel-good Cinderella run in the UAAP men’s basketball tournament, as well as National University’s historic five-peat in the women’s division.
Owing to their impressive off-season build-up which was highlighted by a fourth place finish in the Jones Cup, the Blue Eagles were tipped to win the championship.
After finishing 5-2 in first round which included shock losses to Adamson and Far Eastern University, Ateneo went undefeated along the way to capture its second consecutive crown and 10th overall.
Capping it off with Thirdy Ravena’s 38-point performance in the title clincher, the Eagles swept the Fighting Maroons, 2-0, in the best-of-three series.
“We have a formula. We stick to our formula. That’s it. I didn’t tell them anything different. We just tried to correct our mistakes and that goes for when we win games and when we lose games,” said Ateneo’s Kiwi-American coach Tab Baldwin.
“At 5 and 2, we were 5 and 2. The only thing that mattered was playing better.”
True enough, after the first round hump, the Eagles showed their true might, as Ivorian center and Rookie of the Year winner Ange Kouame was force to reckon in the middle and Ravena showed his leadership in the team.
With the exception of Anton Asistio, who has completed his playing eligibility, Ateneo remains intact for the next UAAP wars and another dynasty is in the offing.
“I think we’ll have to see what presents itself next year and we’ll try and build the team to win a championship again, but keep our focus on the day to day. It served us pretty well the last three years and I don’t see any reason to change our philosophy,” said Baldwin.
“This has been a fun team to work with, a tremendous group of guys. So yeah I’m just very blessed, very very blessed to work with these guys. Very grateful.”
For UP, it was a silver medal that glitters like gold.
The Maroons may have been swept by their Katipunan rivals, but for coach Bo Perasol, he has nothing more to ask from his troops.
In front of 23,471 fans who packed the Smart Araneta Coliseum last Dec. 5, Perasol made sure that UP will seize the moment, that was 32 years in the making.
“We will be back next season, we will be back next season!” shouted Perasol, as UP players formed a circle around him.
Four years ago, only a handful of people would watch the Maroons play, very much aware of a foregone result in every game.
Since Perasol took over in 2016, the UP crowd grew with every game, every season.
When the Maroons made it to the Final Four for the first time in 21 years, those who wouldn’t care watching them play have finally showed up to show their love for UP.
Perasol simply made the non-believers believe again.
“The crowd. That was what the team achieved. They did the unthinkable, they brought together what was once called a broken community,” said Perasol.
With Paul Desiderio and season MVP Bright Akhuetie leading the charge, the Maroons clinched their first Finals appearance since winning their lone post-war championship in 1986 by nipping the twice-to-beat Falcons in a classic Final Four series.
The tournament also saw La Salle miss the Final Four after two fruitful seasons with two-time MVP Ben Mbala, as well as University of Santo Tomas’ huge improvement under coach Aldin Ayo after a forgettable one-win campaign last year.
Meanwhile, the Lady Bulldogs’ golden era continues.
Now the longest active winning streak in any sport in the league at 80, NU won its fifth consecutive championship via 2-0 sweep over FEU.
What’s remarkable with this run was Ria Nabalan and Jhianne Layug capped their five-year UAAP careers for the Lady Bulldogs without a single loss.
NU’s perfect season was made more memorable as it surpassed the old mark of Adamson’s softball team’s 73-game winning streak midway in the eliminations, thanks to the heads-up plays by frontliners Jack Danielle Animam and Rhena Itesi.
“What can I say, it is wow! Amazing! Winning a fifth championship, 80-0? Amazing to be a part of it,” said a jubilant Lady Bulldogs coach Pat Aquino.
“It’s outrageous, wonderful, unbelievable. Talagang I just trying to enjoy every moment of it,” he added.
In the juniors division, Ateneo bagged the championship at the expense of NU, which turned out to be big boy Kai Sotto’s coming-out party and a send-off to coach Joe Silva, who moved on to handle the struggling University of the East’s men’s basketball program.
The Blue Eaglets won the epic best-of-three series, 2-1, for their first title in three years - and 19th overall.