15 Years Later: A Reflection On The 2002 UAAP Champion Ateneo Blue Eagles

September 12, 2017

By Marco Benitez

In the midst of the 14-year title drought known in Ateneo basketball lore as the Dark Ages, many die-hard Ateneans had all but given up on basketball glory. Yes, there was the occasional big win against champion teams, and that twice a year rivalry match with La Salle, where, as the saying went, lose to anyone but La Salle. The 90s were dominated by UST, FEU and DLSU, while the boys from Katipunan, who last held the crown in 1987 and 1988, lingered in the bottom half of the UAAP standings, unable to crack the Final 4.

Then beginning in 1999, with a coaching change that brought in Joe Lipa and some of the cream of Ateneo’s homegrown high school talent – Enrico Villanueva, Rainier Sison, Wesley Gonzales, Paolo Bugia, Larry Fonacier, to name a few – and the recruitment of blue chip talents here and abroad, beginning with eventual 2-time UAAP MVP Rich Alvarez, the basketball program suddenly started to breathe life.

The Blue Eagles made their first Final 4 appearance in 1999, then followed it up with another one the year after, before bowing out despite a twice-to-beat advantage to powerhouse FEU. By 2001, with much experience behind them, and the entry of spitfire guard LA Tenorio - who was just 18 at that time - the Blue Eagles would barge their way to the Finals, facing the reigning three-time UAAP Champion Green Archers. DLSU, led by their King Archer Renren Ritualo, would prevail in three games that year for their 4th straight title. To this day, I still remember all the crying in that Ateneo locker room in Araneta Coliseum, wearing our “I Love Joe” Finals uniforms (that would be Joe Lipa’s last year with the team). But more than that, I will never forget LA’s 32 points in that Game 3. 32 points by an 18-year old rookie point guard, against the best college defense in the land. I knew then that we had someone special.

That 2002 season – season 65 – started out ordinarily; 3 wins and 4 losses in the first round under new head coach Joel Banal. It took some adjustment, emotional team meetings, and veterans demanding accountability from everyone else before we were able to turn the corner on that season. A 6-1 record in the second round, including an emotional win against our arch-rivals on that last elimination round game, stopping their season sweep, 13-1. What awaited was a matchup against the James Yap and Paul Artadi-led UE Red Warriors who had twice-to-beat advantage. Then, there was “The Shot” by Gec Chia, Enrico’s MVP performance in the Finals, and “The Block” on Cardona by Larry Fonacier, and then Araneta Coliseum bursting after 14 long years of heartache – the Blue Eagles were once again kings of the UAAP.

15 years and 5 championships later, there have been many memorable moments, great plays, and basketball icons that have donned the blue and white. When the Atenean basketball fan talks about the greatest moments and players in Ateneo basketball history, it would be hard to top the 5-peat of 2008-2012, and players like Chris Tiu, Greg Slaughter, and the Phenom, Kiefer Ravena. But to the die-hard basketball fan, at least those old enough to remember, they’ll tell you that what started it all, what paved the way for the next generation of King Eagles and championship teams, was that 2002 Championship squad – the Hail Mary Team that wasn’t meant to, but by nothing short of a miracle, pulled off one of greatest and most improbable championship seasons in Ateneo History.

Marco Benitez was a co-captain of the 2002 Ateneo Blue Eagles. He is currently part of S+A's broadcast panel for the UAAP men's basketball games.