ATENEO pulled off a hard-earned 75-68 Game Three conquest of rival University of the Philippines on Monday at a jampacked Smart Araneta Coliseum to reclaim the UAAP men's basketball title it lost to the Maroons last season.
Ange Kouame showed who's boss in the winner-take-all match, compiling 19 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks to cap his Ateneo career on a high note and restore the Blue Eagles' by-now familiar place atop the premier collegiate league.
Yet like gladiators inside the Big Dome, nothing came easy for Ateneo even after it led by as many as 20 points, 52-32, early in the third quarter.
UP fought back to within five, 67-62 in the last 2:11, and an amazing Harold Alarcon four-point play in reverse - a free throw, a deliberate miss which he turned into a corner three-pointer - got the Maroons within 70-67, in the last 20.1 seconds.
But BJ Andrade, one of the three graduating players in the Ateneo lineup, iced the game by calmly sinking his free throws with 12.3 seconds left to trigger the wild celebration in front of 21,814 in attendance inside the historic arena.
Ateneo's fightback from a 0-1 deficit in the best-of-three series gave the Blue Eagles their fourth championship in five seasons and enabled them to wrest the title they lost to the UP Maroons just seven months back.
This was one of the hardest championships that coach Tab Baldwin has won, in a season where the Blue Eagles were counted out numerous times after underdoing a phalanx of changes and departures.
Yet those who remained showed that they're ready for the moment.
Gab Gomez made three three-pointers for his 12 points and two boards, while Andrade scored 10 points in his Ateneo swansong.
Forthsky Padrigao, the lone Ateneo player to make the Mythical Team who was hounded with boos all season long, added 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, and two steals and was integral in a fast start that saw Ateneo open a 9-0 opener that grew to 18, 30-12, late in the first quarter and to 20 at the onset of the second half.
This, though, was Kouame's night as he made up for his awards snub by reminding everyone why he's the best player in the league despite nursing a meniscal sprain and partial ACL tear way back in June.
The Gilas Pilipinas naturalized player ended his Ateneo career with three UAAP crowns.
It was a shortlived reign for UP which leaned on James Spencer's 14 points from four triples to mount a late comeback. Alarcon wound up with 12 points and six rebounds, as Henry Galinato got 12 points and seven boards.
The usual suspects, however, were stymied with Carl Tamayo made to bleed for every drop of his 11 points, nine rebounds, and two assists, and Season MVP Malick Diouf held to just seven points, 19 boards, and four rejections.
Zavier Lucero, ruled out of the clincher after suffering a partial ACL tear in the Game Two oss, made a short appearance with the game already beyond doubt and hit a charity with 0.7 of a second left to cap off his stay in UP.
ATENEO 75 - Kouame 19, Padrigao 12, Gomez 12, Andrade 10, Ballungay 4, Koon 4, Quitevis 4, Daves 4, Chiu 4, Ildefonso 2, Lazaro 0.
UP 68 - Spencer 14, Alarcon 12, Galinato 12, Tamayo 11, Cagulangan 9, Diouf 7, Gonzales 2, Lucero 1, Abadiano 0, Fortea 0, Lina 0.
Quarters: 30-14, 47-32, 60-52, 75-68.