With NU breathing down the Eaglets’ necks and the Ateneo fans trembling in anxiety, it was the supporting cast that stepped up with a string of clutch plays that kept the Bullpups at bay for the next ten minutes bridging the third and fourth quarters.
With under 4 minutes to go in the third, Salandanan found himself momentarily open on the right wing. Never one to shy away from an open three, the recruit from Thomas Starking Middle School in Los Angeles, drilled a long tom to bring the lead back to nine points, 58-49.
NU would continue to put a lot of pressure on the Eaglets, but superb quarterbacking by graduating playmaker Brix Ramos helped stem the tide. He scored 4 straight points late in the third to peg Ateneo’s lead at 64-51.
The Bullpups relentlessly tried to get back in it, counting on the derring-do of Manalang and second-generation player Dave Camaso to end the period strong and trim the deficit anew, 65-57.
At the start of the final frame, neither team could really get something going until long-limbed third-year defensive wiz Gian Mamuyac came up with the interception-of-the-year against Dyke and was consequently fouled on the way to the basket. He hit two freebies and would score on a put-back again a few minutes later to give the Blues a sizable spread, 72-62, with under 7 minutes left. Mamuyac, Salandanan, Ramos, along with great defensive stands from Shaun Ildefonso, Jossier Hassan, and BJ Andrade, fueled the efforts of the Eaglets’ supporting cast.
As valuable as their contributions were, though, it was clear that the only way Ateneo could really put NU away was with the Big Three.
On the heels of a string of Ateneo misses, the Bullpups last cut the gap down to as low as five points, 74-69, but they shot themselves on the foot soon after.
After Jolo extended the Blue Eaglet advantage, 76-69, athletic third-year guard Enzo Joson blocked 6’5 Justin Baltazar with under 5 minutes to go and Matt Nieto grabbed the loose ball. He outran everyone else and looked primed for an easy transition basket when substitute guard Daniel Atienza sent Nieto crashing hard to the floor and with some unnecessary roughness to boot.
The refs whistled Atienza for a shooting foul and a subsequent technical foul, which gifted Ateneo with four free throws and ball possession. That sequence, in effect, killed all of NU’s momentum. Consequently, Atienza was benched the rest of the way and received a tongue-lashing from NU’s coaching staff.
Nieto, who missed just one free throw out of 17 the entire game, made all four charities to, once again, give Ateneo a double-digit lead, 80-69. He misfired on the ensuing possession, but made up for it a few plays later with a booming triple that gave the Blues a commanding 83-69, under 4 minutes to go.
At that point, NU’s body language betrayed their despair. They knew that, after sweeping the entire field in Season 76, they just weren’t good enough to defend the crown this year.
Fittingly enough, Jolo, Mike, and Matt scored the last 7 points of the season for Ateneo before getting subbed out to enjoy the applause and appreciation of the Ateneo fans.
Final score: 90-73.
The title is back in Loyola Heights.
Decades down the line, this will be a great tale for the Nietos, Jolo, and their teammates, but, perhaps, in a very special way, more so for coach Joe Silva.
After Jamike Jarin left the Blue Eaglets’ roost in 2010, at the end of their own three-peat and at the same time that Kiefer, Von Pessumal, and Pao Romero moved on, the coaching reigns of the Juniors program was left in the hands of Silva.
Silva himself was a member of the Eaglets, part of the 1998 team that fell short of the title against the UST Tiger Cubs. He was teammates with storied players like BJ Manalo, Bajjie Del Rosario, Paolo Bugia, and Larry Fonacier (Manalo, Bugia, and Fonacier would all get drafted in the pros). This was a man who, as a player and head coach, had never won the UAAP Juniors title.
After seeing NU and FEU-FERN dominate proceedings in the past three seasons, and after all his personal tribulations (his mom passed during that span), finally, coach Joe got his due. This was a title well-deserved for a guy so underrated and so unheralded. Ranged against coach Napa, who had already won two Juniors titles (2011 and 2013), coach Joe was the clear underdog, but as great underdogs stories go, his grit, heart, and will to win prevailed.
The same could be said for Jolo Mendoza, who missed the Mythical Five cut by two stat points (Adamson’s Fred Tungcab was #5). He was asked many times about how he felt being the only member of Ateneo’s Big Three to not be in the top five, but his response was concise and clear.
“I just want to win the championship.”
Now he has, and, boy, was he awesome.
He scored 21 points in just 14 minutes in the first half. He ended the game with 30 markers to his name, connecting twice from rainbow territory, hitting 50% of his two-pointers, and shooting 8/9 from the line. Not bad for a guy who scored 19 points against Team USA in 2014.
Sure, Jolo’s is not in the Mythical Five, but he is a champion. And, well, winning Finals MVP is the perfect icing on the cake.
Not surprisingly, after this stellar performance on national TV, a lot of people have christened him the future of Philippine basketball.
How’s that for an accolade, right?
When the dust settled, the Eaglets gathered at mid-court, hopped, bobbed, and weaved, and then closed in on coach Joe to give him his first victory ride as UAAP champion coach.
The Big Three was celebrated. The supporting cast had their day in the spotlight. The crown is back in Ateneo.
The day was good.
As for next season, well, it’s still a long way away, but, with Jolo, Gian, Enzo, Shaun, BJ, and most of the team still intact (watch out for some guys coming up from the freshman batch!), I’m certain coach Joe has only one thing in mind: repeat.