Rookie forward Mason Amos (center) delivers big at the crunch for the Eagles despite the Maroons’ sticky defense. —PHOTOS BY AUGUST DELA CRUZ

Rookie forward Mason Amos (center) delivers big at the crunch for the Eagles despite the Maroons’ sticky defense. —PHOTOS BY AUGUST DELA CRUZ

Ateneo was not ready to relinquish its mastery of University of the Philippines (UP) just yet, nor give the Maroons the psychological edge from earning a first round sweep of the UAAP Season 86 men’s basketball tournament.

And the highly anticipated rematch of last season’s championship was good as advertised, with the Blue Eagles needing an extra five minutes to dust off the Fighting Maroons, 99-89, before a boisterous crowd that filled Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday.

“This is the first time we’ve won back-to-back this season, and if we can’t do more of that, then this would just be a moment instead of maybe turning a corner,” Ateneo’s Tab Baldwin told reporters after his Eagles rose to 4-3 to make it inside the top four for the first time in a long while.

“Very delighted with the win, it was a character game for us. UP is a great team and they played great.”

But despite being the first team to pin a loss on the Maroons, Baldwin still believes that UP is the team to beat. And being the perfectionist that he is, the Ateneo mentor wants nothing less than his Eagles to continue playing with the same brilliance, the same resilience, to avoid another roller-coaster stretch when the second round comes.

Ateneo’s brilliance seems to come to fore every time it plays big games, like in a 77-72 win over bitter rival La Salle a couple of weeks back.

“To win big games you gotta do things that are sort of out of the system,” he said. “Guys have to step up and make plays. This game really means nothing if we don’t back it up.”

Balanced attack

The Eagles were coming off a 97-77 manhandling of previously winless University of Santo Tomas (UST), and Mason Amos was big once again for Ateneo, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds including big shots in the extra period.

Francis Lopez was instrumental in UP’s fight back in the dying seconds of regulation, 80-76, before JD Cagulangan and Reyland Torres necessitated extension at 80-all with big-time buckets.

Chris Koon helped Ateneo with 17 points and seven boards, Joe Obasa had 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocks while wisely keeping away from a disqualifying foul. Kai Ballungay chipped in with 10 points and the same number of rebounds to round out a well-balanced attack by the Eagles.

The Growling Tigers, meanwhile, licked the wounds of that 20-point shellacking to win for the first time this season, downing Far Eastern, 68-62, that snapped the school’s longest losing streak of 19 games.

TAB BALDWINAteneo Eagles coach

Ateneo Eagles coach

“The best part for us is that [the players] have felt how to win again,” Santo Tomas assistant Japs Cuan said in Filipino, taking over for the interview from Pido Jarencio who joined the team in the dug out immediately. “[But] we told them that it’s just one game. “We need to work harder for the next game.”

Cuan and the rest of coaching staff are just relieved to get the monkey off their backs, especially with Adama Faye continuing to sit it out with a bad back.“We had a good start in our past six games only to fall short,” Cuan said. “The boys were locked in, hopefully they could continue that.”

The last Santo Tomas win came during the opening of Season 85 when it nipped Adamson, 69-60.

That stood as their only win the entire season, and things looked up for the Tigers after a massive recruitment frenzy. They are 1-6 now and with seven more games to improve on last season’s mark.

Not an excuse

But Jarencio and his deputies are not about to point their fingers at Faye’s absence on their woes.

“Ever since, we did not make excuses that Faye is not here. We put our trust in our 15 players,” added Cuan, who also revealed that UST will make an announcement soon on the status of Faye.

Faye had played just 12 minutes combined in two games, and has reportedly gotten a clean bill of health from team doctors. He has still not suited up. Christian Manaytay was the one who stood up at the slot for the Tigers, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

“I just filled that role since we don’t have our import. Our other bigs need to step up as well. I tell them during the practice that we are the only bigs left and we don’t have anyone to rely on so let’s just fight it out,” Manaytay said in Filipino.

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“I am super happy and a bit overwhelmed because this will give us confidence going to the next round. Let’s say we’ll be happy today and we’re gonna work again tomorrow,” said Nic Cabanero, who lifted the Growling Tigers with 23 points, including 11 in the third period. INQ

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