UAAP 80 JUNIORS BASKETBALL: How the Eaglets' hearts overcame the odds
Ateneo captain Joaqui Manuel epitomized the Eaglets' heart as the senior played despite a sprained ankle in Game 3 of the UAAP Season 80 Juniors Basketball Finals.
For all intents and purposes, Ateneo should NOT have won Game 3 and Season 80's UAAP Juniors Championship. If you go by the numbers, NU had prepared and stuck to their game plan - a game plan that won for them Game 2.
Despite scoring just six points in the first quarter, NU also managed to keep Ateneo to just 15 pts on five of 19 shooting, forcing the Loyola boys to five early turnovers. Ateneo turned the ball over seven more times in the second quarter (total of 12 for the half), as NU outscored the Eaglets 17-13 in the period to close the half down by just five, 28-23 - a low scoring half, by any standards.
By halftime, NU had outrebounded Ateneo on the offensive boards 8-5, forced the Eaglets to 12 turnovers, and held them to just 11 out of 31 from the field. Kai Sotto and SJ Belangel had combined for 15 of Ateneo's 28 first half points, while everyone else contributed just 13. That was going to be how the Bullpups would grind out this championship: keep the scoring down, force Ateneo to mistakes, and outwork them on the glass -- the exact formula for their Game 2 triumph.
The third quarter was much of the same. NU outscored Ateneo 20-16, forced the Eaglets to five more turnovers (while they committed just 1 in the quarter), and outrebounded them 5-3 offensively, with NU taking 11 more field goal attempts (23-12). Terrence Fortea had started to run circles on the Ateneo defense, pouring seven of his team high 14 points in the third, bringing the Bullpups to within one, 43-44, heading into the final canto.
But as with all do-or-die matches, numbers do not decide the outcome, players do. Great players make the great plays when they matter the most; and in Game 3, Ateneo had the two best players on the floor.
Belangel and Sotto delivered the crucial baskets when NU looked like they were poised to pull the upset of the year. Belangel, despite shooting just two out of ten in the fourth quarter, kept attacking the NU defense. His aggressiveness got him to the line three times, where he was perfect, including the 2 charities that iced the game, putting Ateneo up by 4 with less than 20 seconds remaining. Sotto for his part, made seven of his game high 19 points and four of his six offensive rebounds in the final period, including that pivotal put back off the Joaqui Manuel drive that put Ateneo up for good.
(Major props to the Ateneo coaching staff for putting Kai Sotto at the free throw area on those two crucial possessions down the stretch - preventing the defense to pack the paint and allowing Manuel and Belangel open drives to the basket - not to mention giving him a free lane for those put backs)
Though the final numbers still looked kindly on the Bullpups - seven turnovers vs Ateneo's 23, 12-6 turnover points in favor of NU, 20 offensive rebounds vs Ateneo's 18, and plus 25 more field goal attempts (87-62) -- in the end it was still the players and the team that wanted it more that decided the outcome. Ateneo took just one 3-point attempt in the fourth, and purposely attacked inside, while NU went two for nine (5/35 for the game) from downtown. That type of shot selection put the Eaglets in a better position to score, and get to the line, which in the end, proved to be the difference.
Hats off to both teams for a finals series for the ages -- the Bullpups were 2 possessions away from victory -- and congratulations to the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, once again Kings of the UAAP Juniors division.