By Leobert Julian A. de la Peña
The Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles just reclaimed their throne as kings of the UAAP men’s basketball after nipping the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons, 75-68, in the do-or-die Game 3 of Season 85’s grand finals last December 19, 2022.
With tensions high and pressure starting to get into their veins as the court announcer shouted game time, it was the blue and white nation who came on top and delivered yet another basketball masterpiece for the ages.
Last season’s runner-ups showed they badly wanted revenge against the same team that broke their hearts during the UAAP Season 84 championship game and immediately started the ball game with a fiery 9-0 run courtesy of back-to-back baskets from sophomore guard Forthsky Padrigao, a strong layup from Kai Ballungay, and a strong paint finish from Ange Kouame.
Ateneo’s defensive schemes against UP’s offensive sets also worked to perfection as the Blue Eagles held the Fighting Maroons scoreless in the first five minutes of the game before Cyril Gonzales broke their slump with a layup.
Despite Gonzales’ strong drive that woke up the UP fans in attendance, Ateneo’s well-oiled offense still stole the show which opened a 30-14 lead after the first 10 minutes of action.
The Blue Eagles never ran out of firepower in the first half and continued pouring in the attack in the second period.
Gab Gomez, one of Ateneo’s unsung heroes in the championship series, provided the first-half spark after draining three shots from downtown that answered every UP basket in the second quarter.
Ateneo’s consistent offensive flurry and efficient help defenses in the paint helped them end the first 20 minutes of action with a 47-32 lead.
Just when the Blue Eagles thought they could snowball their way to victory at the start of the third quarter, the defending UAAP champions showed heart and uncorked one of the most impressive runs in championship series history.
Down by 20 points with 8:28 remaining in the third period, the Fighting Maroons stunned the Ateneo crowd after unleashing an 18-4 scoring blast that trimmed the Blue Eagles’ lead to just four points, 60-56.
It was a magical show for last year’s hero JD Cagulangan who led the UP assault after scoring four-straight points built from two acrobatic layups.
James Spencer was also vital in that massive UP run after erupting for eight points in just three minutes with a floater in the lane and two treys.
However, Ateneo answered back with crucial baskets that fended off UP’s run in the first few minutes of the final canto when they ballooned their lead back to double-digits.
The Blue Eagles were confidently ahead by six points, 70-64, with only 24 seconds left in the game and were pretty much bound for a redemption title but UP guard Harold Alarcon injected life in the Fighting Maroons after a jaw-dropping play that got them within just three points, 70-67.
Alarcon intentionally missed his last shot in the charity stripe, got his own offensive rebound, gathered his feet in the left corner and sank a hail mary shot that put the pressure back on Ateneo.
Ateneo then shut UP’s comeback effort after graduating guard BJ Andrade sank the two most important free throws for the Blue Eagles that extended their lead back to five points with 12 seconds left in the clock.
“I’m so far from the forefront of this championship. It’s about these players. I’m just so grateful for their effort. I’m the lucky guy,” said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.
Koaume bagged the Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) award after ending the rubber match with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks.