Ateneo Blue Eagles: In title form early on

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Published August 11, 2014 in thefilipinoconnection.net

PASAY CITY — Texts from players’ and fans’ aqua blue t-shirts give messages that simply tell how the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles are ruling the ongoing UAAP senior’s basketball tournament.

An elderly man, at the patron area, had raised his two hands thrice while shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” After patting a friend wearing a green polo shirt, the approaching senior citizen just smiled and didn’t talk.

His shirt did the subtle taunting: “Champions, 2012.”

Why would that white-haired fan —and his shirt— not scream in triumph after a thrilling come-from-behind win by the once four-peat champions over a gritty University of the East Red Warriors squad? Down 21 in the first quarter and forcing overtime, Kiefer Ravena brought his fellow Eagles to salvation and to the leader board in the first half of the elimination round.

That’s the scary part: After Ateneo’s five-peat reign from 2008 to 2012, as well as a fifth-place finish last year, this 77th season’s Blue Eagles are in title form. (Tipped to rule this year is Ateneo’s archrival and reigning national collegiate champions De La Salle University.)

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Another shirt, this time worn by the current crop of Eagles, can entice fear: “Blue Eagles won’t stop.”

Like fourth-year player Ravena. He can’t be stopped.

Ateneo’s so-called “phenom” ended the first round with memorable shots and game-enders. Last Aug. 6, Ravena spun a defender in Ed Daquioag and drained the winning jumper with 3.7 ticks left in Ateneo’s thrilling 63-61 escape act over the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers.

This time against a Red Warriors team that caught Ateneo napping with full-court presses most of the game, Ravena made a mid-range floater with 1.4 secs. left to knot the count at 80. Come overtime, Ravena canned a booming triple then converted many of his free throws (UE gave up 25 freethrows to Ravena alone).

To cap off his heroics in this third straight contest for Ateneo, Ravena made a career-high 38 pts.

“I always give it to the leader, Kiefer. He delivered us (Blue Eagles) at the end again,” Ateneo coach Bo Perasol told reporters.

So in a league that has become a Kiefer show, his health is suddenly a concern. At the customary singing of the school chant, Ravena sat down. Then he admitted to be having a sprained ankle after the match (“Nothing serious” though, he said). As he was about to exit the Mall of Asia Arena, Ravena slightly held his waist area.

“Pagod! (Tired!),” Ravena said.

But his teammates who were part of the 2012 squad were the able backups. In the UE and UST games for example, Von Pessumal drained clutch threes (the fourth-year player shot six-of-seven threes in the UE game alone).

Ravena’s veteran and rookie teammates are sources of the veteran’s confidence. “As a leader you don’t want to be a burden to your teammates even if you get tired. (Teammates) give me confidence.”

So Ravena’s current crop of Blue Eagles is now exuding confidence heading into the second round given a 6-1 slate. La Salle, after two horrendous losses to open its season (including against Ateneo), is now regaining its championship poise with a 5-2 record.

National University is the surprise package thus far: No more Bobby Ray Parks and Emmanuel Mbe is no constraint to the Bulldogs, thus far playing team ball and getting lifts from the veterans and from a rookie African recruit. NU is tied for second with La Salle and was the one in Ateneo’s six-and-one.

Far Eastern University, UST and UE are left thus far to scramble for that fourth spot when the first phase of the elimination round ends Aug. 13. FEU has proven to win big games but surprisingly lose crucial outings. Host UE, even with Roi Sumang and Charles Mammie leading them, remained struggling in closing out games — like this supposed won game over the Blue Eagles, and another close shave against the Bulldogs some games earlier.

UST, under new head coach Segundo dela Cruz, is still looking for the form that led the Tigers to two straight finals appearances during the Pido Jarencio coaching era. But a 70-83 loss to its own arch nemesis La Salle won’t help the Tigers’ cause.

That UST loss, as well as the losses of the other leading contenders, helped Ateneo to sit comfortably on top, and to be in a form that the aqua blue shirts of its players and fans –if these shirts can only talk and taunt– can scream loudly.

Louder, if the Blue Eagles —this season 77— go all the way like in seasons past.

***

Editor’s note: The author teaches at the University of Santo Tomas.

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