Fresh from an emotionally destabilizing UAAP Finals series, the FHM crew breaks down the season’s biggest surprises and sudden developments, along with cool things to look forward to for next year’s Season 81.
When was the last time you remember a bench player averaging less than 16 minutes a game become an absolute star—capturing the persistent drama of sports at its finest—within a couple of weeks?
Go’s saga started with a historic miss: a point-blank undergoal stab gone awry against defender Ben Mbala that could have given Ateneo its first season sweep in history. Isaac Go became the scapegoat for a loss that shifted momentum to the second-seed Green Archers.
Against FEU, Ateneo found themselves down three with 14.5 seconds left in a do-or-die game and was staring into the eyes of oblivion, until Coach Tab Baldwin caught Isaac Go in a huddle and told him: “You’re gonna shoot.” The rest is history as we know it: a clutch three that sent the game to overtime, and a kneeling dagger in the extra period that put FEU away.
In Game 1 against La Salle, Go shot the same undergoal shot against Mbala, this time successfully, for a two-possession advantage. In Game 3, he shot the iconic in-your-face rainbow three again to seal the deal for Ateneo. Leading to that moment, Go shot 0/3 from beyond the arc against La Salle.
While Go’s humility and kickass memes helped endear himself to fans, his exploits are but a testament to Ateneo’s philosophy of sharing the ball and finding the open man to maximize opportunities to score. Go himself claims this by saying one shot does not create a championship, but a combination of little details that drove this Ateneo team to greatness.
Aldin Ayo's job is no longer untouchable
It’s strange to even fathom how the coach of last year’s runaway defending champions could leave after another incredibly successful season, but we’re dealing with La Salle here, along with huge expectations from a rabid fanbase.
Ayo may have been the architect of an intense and highly watchable Mayhem philosophy, but the fact is: a seemingly invincible team was beaten four times in Season 80. This was supposed to be the best team in the UAAP on paper, but Ayo’s run-and-gun squad fell prey to a scrappy, determined Ateneo team.
Pundits may also treat two-time MVP Ben Mbala’s containment and inability to adjust as a coaching issue. But Mbala consistently made good decisions on the floor, always passing out to open shooters when double-teamed or pushed into awkward angles in the paint. The problem was in the shooting department. La Salle shot an egregious 26% from beyond the arc in three Finals games, which forced Mbala’s hand on the offense, resulting in less efficient shots.
With the rumors of Ayo being recruited by UST and the impending experiation of his contract in December, things may not look as peachy for the Green Archers next year, despite the fact that Ayo himself claims he and Mbala will be back in 2018. Seeing as La Salle’s core remains virtually intact next year, one can argue Ayo and the Mayhem Era deserve one more shot at redemption against their rivals (Ayo and Baldwin are now 1-1 in championships).
UP is finally #woke
Team #AtinTo may have missed the final four by a hair (6–8 win-loss record), but the heroics of Paul Desiderio and company have still succeeded in jumpstarting a comatose fanbase into basketball relevancy. UP fans definitely have a few promising things to look forward to next year.
UAAP Rookie of the Year Juan Gomez de Liano showed poise and skill, and this sets up another stellar year together with his brother Javi.
Former University of Visayas Green Lancer Jun Manzo not only brought fresh playmaking to the Maroons, but like his fellow Cebuano, Desiderio, Manzo does not seem to lack any confidence and determination despite his 5’9” frame. Hopefully, his leadership lights a fire underneath both UP’s younger studs and jaded vets alike.
Barring any political mishaps, next season may also herald the coming of long-anticipated Nigerian recruit Bright Akhuetie. The former University of Perpetual Help star averaged 17.6 ppg, 12.1 rpg, and 1.7 bpg in NCAA Season 92 before being unceremoniously poached by Bo Perasol for UP. Akhuetie is expected to immediately catapult UP into title contention, something that the UP community has been praying for since 1986, during the miraculous run by legends Benjie Paras, Eric Altamirano, and Ronnie Magsanoc.
The redemption tour for the Blue Eagle outcasts continues
In some alternate dimension Hubert Cani, Arvin Tolentino, Jerie Pingoy, Clint Doliguez, and CJ Perez may have been holding the UAAP trophy last Sunday. But despite the speed bumps, Ateneo’s former talented cast has found ways to contribute meaningfully to their new respective teams.
Cani and Tolentino gave FEU a scoring punch and a mean streak they sorely needed to advance to the playoffs. Tolentino legitimized himself as a proper scoring threat both inside and out (35% 3pt fg%), providing solid rebounding (6.2 rpg) to complement a gritty Tamaraw team.
It took some time, but Pingoy eventually reclaimed his starter position and showed the country what he could do on the open floor. Pingoy ended his UAAP campaign 2nd in assists (5.1 apg) and 1st in steals (2.6 spg), alleviating the playmaking pressure from Jerrick Ahanmisi and Papi Sarr and pioneering an unselfish culture for Adamson.
Perhaps more notably, Doliguez went on to become a key contributor for this year’s San Beda championship squad, which went up against season sweepers and league MVP CJ Perez of Lyceum, who will once again vie for the title next year.
Look for these young hotshots to pave new roads for their respective teams and continue to make Ateneo regret moving on from them.
A new generation of stars arrive
2017 was an incredible breakout year for a lot of young players, perhaps none as breathtaking as the ascent of superfreak Ricci Rivero (7th in scoring), who rose from lineup obscurity to become the legitimate second option of La Salle behind Ben Mbala. Blessed with a Jordanian hangtime and athleticism, Rivero rewarded Coach Ayo’s trust by terrorizing the competition with his fearless drives, rim-rattling dunks, and impossible dipsy-doos. Once he bulks up and learns how to play with Aljun Melecio, La Salle’s offensive potency can potentially shoot off the charts.
Was UE Red Warrior Alvin Pasaol, who garnered a league-high 49 points against La Salle, in the right shape to play? Pasaol (3rd in fgm) seemed faster and leaner last year during Season 79. Despite former coach Derrick Pumaren’s playful insistence that he should shed some pounds, one could argue he has never been this unstoppable, having a bulky 6’3” frame that could push and bully defenders around with his untouchable floaters and impeccable touch at the rim. This is instant offense UE can instantly build on—should Pasaol decide to return to UE.
This year has also been a remarkable year for point guards. Aside from Pingoy, NU’s Jayjay Alejandro (1st in apg), FEU’s Jasper Parker (3rd in apg), UST’s Jordan Sta. Ana (4th in apg), and UE’s Mark Olayon (5th in apg) all averaged above four assists per game and are poised to cement their role as floor generals of the future. The race is on to see who joins ADMU and DLSU on top.
The Blue Eaglets program works as advertised
Anyone would have guessed that Ateneo would return to the Finals sooner rather than later, but it’s unlikely they predicted that more than half of the key contributors would be homegrown talent from the junior Eaglets program.
Ateneo’s off-the-charts chemistry can be attributed to players already having played in some shape or form with one another before setting one foot in the college ranks.
Thirdy Ravena is also gaining accolades by partnering his 2013 Juniors MVP award with the Eaglets to this year’s Finals MVP. Surrounded by the Blue Eagle Band of Brothers in standouts Aaron Black, Anton Asistio, and Kris Porter, Thirdy has brought a winning culture to the Blue Eagles squad and helped fast-forward their success with his tireless work ethic and versatile play.
Star scorer Jolo Mendoza, the hard-as-nails Nieto twins (Matt and Mike) defensive ace Gian Mamuyac, and BJ Andrade actually won the juniors championship in 2015 against a formidable NU team led by Mark Dyke and Justine Baltazar, proving that Ateneo’s culture of winning and teamwork can be replicated in the big leagues.
Here’s hoping we witness some of these players in a PBA team in the future, or perhaps even join their kuyas Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal in the Gilas cadet program.
The Finals ended not with a civilized whimper
This year’s finals were so physical and emotional that both the Araneta Coliseum and SM MOA Arena were inches away from an all-out brawl. There probably hasn’t been this much blood in a UAAP Finals series in a while—and an increasing amount of tension coupled with inconsistent foul calls in Games 1 and 2 were threatening to bring back the UAAP to its heyday of tansan-throwing and parking lot fisticuffs.
Instead, Game 3 was an instant classic, with no foul calls giving a noticeable advantage to either side and no controversial moments. Both teams played their hearts out and gave the raucous crowd an incredible moment to remember. Handshakes were exchanged, tears were shed, and respectful hands clapped in unison for each other’s school anthems.
Even La Salle, the architect of the infuriatingly physical mayhem defense, had this much to display after the game:
Thank God for the UAAP! Perhaps there’s hope in the human race yet.