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    Ateneo on cusp of first three-peat since 2010. Find out how tough it was then

    Nov 19, 2019
    PHOTO: Jerome Ascano

    ATENEO is just one win away from completing the first 16-0 season in the league with a win against University of Santo Tomas in the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball Finals on Wednesday.

    It's an unprecedented feat for the Blue Eagles, exerting their dominance all-season long as they close in on achieving a three-peat.

    Yet this season paled in comparison to the last time Ateneo achieved the feat of winning three straight titles. Without a shadow of a doubt, it truly was a struggle.

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      Back in 2010, expectations for the Blue Eagles were subdued.

      Despite the Katipunan side coming off back-to-back championships, many expected the team's UAAP Season 73 campaign to be difficult, all the more with the departure of twin towers Rabeh Al-Hussaini and Nonoy Baclao, as well as steady point guard Jai Reyes.

      It truly was the first season many felt that a championship wasn't in the bag.

      Continue reading below ↓

      And that notion was furthered by its 72-69 defeat to Far Eastern University in its season opener and a 66-63 decision at the expense of La Salle as Ateneo started the season at an even 2-2.

      But the Norman Black-coached squad was an unwavering bunch. Buoyed by the brilliance of Ryan Buenafe, Nico Salva, and Justin Chua, the Blue Eagless went on a six-game winning streak — which included a 17-point mauling of La Salle, 74-57 — to barge into the Final Four with even a shot at nabbing the top seed.

      Continue reading below ↓

      Only a tight 62-60 defeat to University of the East, bannered by Paul Lee and Ken Acibar, halted that six-game run.

      The Tamaraws, however, remained the only hump the Blue Eagles couldn't hurdle, bowing 74-72 as the duo of RR Garcia and Terrence Romeo got the job done to finish the elimination phase.

      Though defeated, Ateneo still ended as the two-seed with its 10-4 card, taking full advantage of its twice-to-beat advantage to whip Adamson, 68-55, in the semifinals and set up another go-round against FEU in the Finals.

      If there were doubts on the Blue Eagles' capability to edge the Tamaraws, they immediately proved doubters wrong as a 26-8 start allowed the blue side to dominate their peers from Morayta and take the 72-49 Game One win. Kirk Long led the balanced attack with 14 points.

      FEU, the top seed and the clear-cut favorite to win that year's crown, plotted a big comeback to set up a tightly contested Game Two.

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      Buenafe, though, wasn't one to shy away from the spotlight.

      The hefty forward — who was heavily criticized for adding excess weight before the start of the season — played hero for Ateneo in the clutch, scoring 10 straight, telling points, including a big trey with 22.1 seconds left to give his side the 64-59 lead.

      Those heroics led to a 65-62 Game Two thriller as the Blue Eagles rejoiced their triumph in front of 17,215 in attendance at Araneta Coliseum.

      Continue reading below ↓

      "Definitely, this is the most difficult championship we've won in the last three years," said coach Norman Black, in awe of the monumental task his side accomplished. "There were doubters and there were critics, but luckily for me, my players have big hearts."

      Buenafe, who finished with 23 points and six rebounds, was rightfully feted the Finals MVP, the lone individual award handed to a Blue Eagle as no one of their players made it to the Mythical Team -- just like this season.

      Nine years later, Ateneo has a chance to have that feeling again.

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      PHOTO: Jerome Ascano
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