Last week, the De La Salle University Green Archers swept the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles to be crowned the UAAP Season 79 Men’s basketball Champions in front of a packed crowd at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. It was a Finals series that was any fan’s dream, featuring a rivalry bolstered with decades of history and emotion.
But it almost wasn’t the case.
As the Blue Eagles entered the 2016 basketball season, it was clear that their championship prospects were nowhere near as promising as they’d been in recent seasons; following the departures of big guns like Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, and Fonzo Gotladera, the Katipunan-based team had serious gaps to fill, and the introduction of former Gilas coach Tab Baldwin into the mix was a variable that honestly could have gone either way.
Under Baldwin, the first few games of the new lineup had analysts on the fence; with the revamped Blue Eagles scoring a slim four-point win over Season 78 champs Far Eastern University, before falling to National University in their next outing.
And so it went, with wins and losses coming in equal measure, as they triumphed over the incumbent Far Eastern University, but subsequently lost to the Adamson Falcons. Wins against the Univeristy of the East Red Warriors and University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons followed, with a loss to DLSU finishing off the season’s first round.
A loss to the Maroons at the beginning of the second round seemed to herald a continuation of the downward slide, but then something happened – the Ateneo squad started playing like a team with something to prove.
The Red Warriors were the first to be overcome by the Blue Eagles’ renewed sense of purpose, followed by the NU Bulldogs, and, yes, DLSU, before they triumphed, in rapid succession, against FEU and UST.
From 6th seed, the Blue Eagles were now jostling for second seed, with a real shot at the coveted twice-to-beat advantage. While a win over the Falcons put them a step closer, the Blue Eagles fell to FEU by a single point. The Eagles would bounce back in the next game, with a win that will forever be associated with the image of a bloodied Isaac Go.
It was a victory hard-earned: the Blue Eagles had made it to the Finals. This would be Ateneo’s first time to face the Archers in a championship series since 2008.
Now, we all know that Ateneo didn’t go on to win that championship, falling to DLSU in a 2-game sweep, but then, insiders and enthusiasts anticipated as much. What they didn’t anticipate was who the Green Archers’ opponents in those Finals would ultimately turn out to be.
When all is said and done, the Blue Eagles have nothing to be ashamed of from finishing off 2016 as the runner-up. Indeed, what will most likely live on when people look back at UAAP Season 79 is the story of a team that nobody expected much from ultimately defying expectations to add their chapter to one of the country’s most fabled sporting rivalries.
In the lead up to next year’s Season 80, that’s definitely something worth remembering.