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Pep talk sparks Ateneo

A surprise visit from former Ateneo de Manila University players provided a much-needed boost that sparked the current team to fight as if their lives were on the line.

Words of encouragement from the likes of the Nieto brothers – Mike and Matt – and Will Navarro lifted the spirits of the Blue Eagles heading into Game 2 of their University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 85 men’s basketball finals series against reigning champion University of the Philippines.

It worked wonders as the pep talk fueled the Blue Eagles to a 65-55 victory that knotted their best-of-three series late Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said they were surprised when former leaders of the team took time off their busy schedules to visit and fire up the Blue Eagles two days before the crucial Game 2.

“They organized it,” Baldwin, whose wards are on the verge of regaining the title they lost seven months ago when they clash in sudden-death Game 3 on Monday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

“It was a surprise to me when they came in. Of course, it was a very welcome surprise. We have precious few chances to see all of them together, and, I mean, even Will Navarro was there, and the news was that he has an ACL injury. So sad news for Will, but he was there as well. So, they organized it, I’m not sure, usually it’s the Nieto brothers, you know how they are.”

Baldwin said talking to the older batch his Blue Eagles squeezed out the best from his team.

“I think that the impact was extraordinary,” he said.

“Each one of them spoke. And you know, I said to the team the next day, I think, these guys aren’t speakers. There were several captains there. Of course, Mike Nieto, it’s hard to shut him up.”

“But the rest of them, even the captains, and even on our coaching staff, G-Boy Babilonia, a former captain in my first season. They were all there, they all spoke.”

The talk, the mentor added, focused on encouraging the current Blue Eagles to keep their heads up and remember the pride, legacy and brotherhood that keyed in Ateneo’s three-peat from 2017 to 2019.

“And, you know, the team was consistent. It was, there is a legacy. The legacy was built on brotherhood. It was built on, you know… ‘we few, for he today who will shed his blood for me is my brother’. It was built on that legacy, and I don’t think this current team has had the opportunity to embed that philosophy,” Baldwin said.

“Pandemic, abbreviated preseasons, losing last season. We just haven’t embedded it, and it came to life on Monday night. It was real. It was alive. It was personified in the exact people who built it. Powerful. Powerful. I was overwhelmed.”

Forward Kai Ballungay was one of the Ateneo players moved by their predecessors’ words.

Scoreless in Game 1, Ballungay rebounded with an inspired performance to finish with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and grabbed five rebounds in 19 minutes of action for the Blue Eagles.

“I think it really started Monday night when the alumni came and they spoke to the team. It was really special, not only for the team but for myself especially,” he said.

“Just hearing their stories. The Nieto brothers, Navarro. All those types of guys, and they were able to instill into me a lot of things that they witnessed, things that they experienced in their careers. I really took that to heart and wanted to — like Sean (Quitevis) said — show that type of brotherhood, something that we can live up to, what they did in years past.”

Outgoing senior Ange Kouame, for his part, shared that he wants to emulate what the ex-Ateneans did for the team – being a part of the brotherhood that reigned supreme before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“Like Coach Tab said, it was really heartwarming. But not just that, because I also witnessed when they lost against La Salle in the first year, Season 79. I was there when they won the next championship in 80, and then I joined the team in 81. So, I was part of the process at some point, you know. Parang, I really see what they were about,” Kouame, who led the Blue Eagles in the equalizer with a neat stat line of 19 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks, said.

“From them to come from the ground to become something. They built this team, and me right now, I’m a senior, so I also look up to them. Because I was part of it, and I try to bring those lessons to the young ones, so they’ll know what we’re really all about.”

Now, with the golden opportunity to reclaim the throne on Monday, the current Ateneo players are out to prove that the legacy left by their seniors — the blue blood of the Katipunan warriors of the past — remains flowing in their veins.

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