As the Ateneo Blue Eaglets made one final huddle before leaving the Blue Eagle Gym’s hallowed hardcourt, coach Joe Silva uttered a very striking statement.
“Stay humble,” said Silva, himself a former Eaglet.
It’s a bit of an ironic statement for arguably the most decorated high school basketball program in the UAAP. The Eaglets, after all, have swept many times over in the past (1999 with Larry Fonacier leading the way; 2006 with Mike Gamboa, Zags Gonzaga, and Bacon Austria; 2010 with Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, and Pao Romero), and, well, the way they plastered the defending champion NU Bullpups was straight out of a video game.
Silva then followed it up by reminding the team of their true goal.
“Hindi pa ‘to tapos. 2 more wins,” said the longtime assistant of new San Beda head coach Jamike Jarin.
Many hoop nuts say that there is something rich and romantic about coaching high school basketball, mainly because there’s still a remnant of the sport’s “purity” inherent in the way these pubescents play. Of course, there’s also the fact that a coach at this level is really more than a tactician — he is also a teacher.
In my mind, that’s what coach Silva was in that winning moment.
Fittingly enough, his team was the one that did the schooling on the court as the Eaglets were relentless on both ends of the floor. The star of the game was, not surprisingly, Big Mike Nieto, who is the leading candidate for Most Valuable Player this season.
Big Mike was crazy awesome in this one, giving the fans a glimpse of what he can bring to the table in the Seniors Division. The graduating center-forward scored at will and in practically every conceivable way. He drilled midrange jumpers, powered his way inside, scored in transition, and nailed long toms.
The epitome of his offensive dominance could be seen in the middle of the fourth quarter. With NU last threatening at 58-42, Big Mike went on a personal tear, scoring 13 of Ateneo’s next 18 points as the Eaglets put the outcome beyond doubt, 76-45, with under two minutes remaining. In that span, Nieto hit a baseline J, made a three from the left wing, made another triple (off a steal at that) this time from the right side, nailed a STEP-BACK THREE from the same spot, and then did his best Kiefer Ravena imitation by side-stepping past his defender on the break. Phew. Did you get all that?
If there was anybody in the Blue Eagle Gym who doubted his possible utility in the Seniors, that sequence right there certainly silenced him/her. Clearly, the “Big” in Mike’s moniker isn’t just for his build, but also for his heart.
Lest you think this was a one-man demolition job, though, be reminded that other Eaglets were on-point as well. Grade 11 combo guard Jolo Mendoza hit two triples on his way to a dozen points, while batchmate Enzo Joson stepped up with 10 markers on an immaculate 5/5 FG shooting display.
So dominant were the Eaglets that they forced 23 NU turnovers, which resulted in 17 points off TOs. Ateneo was also +11 in fastbreak points, +7 in second chance points, and +28 in perimeter scoring. In short, what many expected to be a war of attrition turned out to be a clinic.
For their part, the Bullpups were strangely out of it. Their collective body language belied the lack of mental toughness needed to overcome such a formidable foe. Usually steady playmaker Philip Manalang shot 0/7 from the field, had 0 assists, and 5 turnovers. National team star Mark Dyke shot poorly from the floor, connecting just twice in ten tries, with nobody outside of him scoring in double-digits.
The consequence? NU will figure in a playoff for the second seed against the dangerous Adamson Baby Falcons, who have lost just once in the second round. The victor in that match gains a twice-to-beat edge in the stepladder Final 4, while the loser faces the De La Salle-Zobel Junior Archers in a one-game knockout affair.
Speaking of Adamson and Zobel, both schools got the job done earlier in the day. Adamson hardly broke a sweat in disposing of the UST Tiger Cubs, 76-67. Coach Goldwyn Monteverde’s boys led by as many as 27 points in this one, and they really look like legitimate title contenders heading into next round. Gerald Fernandez, Miguel Sasuman, Fred Tungcab, and James Pasturan all scored at least 11 points to lead Adamson’s charge.
The Junior Archers, meanwhile, survived a see-saw affair at the expense of the FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws, who saw their season go up in flames as Ricky Permingan’s potential game-winner failed to find the mark. Coach Boris Aldeguer’s wards proved to be clutch in the endgame, hitting some big shots to eventually keep the Baby Tamaraws at bay, 60-58. Quinito Banzon was impressive here, hitting 8 of his 12 FG attempts to register 18 points and 4 steals, while Aljun Melecio added 14 markers. Noah Webb, meanwhile, anchored the interior with 11 points on 5/8 FG shooting and 8 rebounds. On the other end, FEU-FERN was paced by the combined 29 points of guards Marvin Lee and Wendell Comboy. The Baby Tams are now among the offseason’s early vacationers. They join UST and UPIS, which beat the UE Junior Warriors for just its second win, 93-65.
Continue checking out the #UAAP77Jrs games at the Blue Eagle Gym. The playoff between NU and Adamson is on Tuesday, February 3, while the next game (playoff loser vs. DLSZ) is on Friday, February 6. The Juniors games will now be played exclusively every succeeding Tuesday and Friday.