MANILA, Philippines—SJ Belangel was the hero Ateneo needed in Game 2 of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball finals, as the sophomore point guard drilled big shot after big shot after big shot for the Blue Eagles.
It was Belangel who quelled the repeated uprising of University of Santo Tomas, eventually finishing with a career-high 15 points built on five 3-pointers, along with a rebound and an assist.
It was his 3-pointer with just over a minute left in the third quarter that silenced UST, after the Growling Tigers had come to within two points, 62-60.
It was his 3-pointer with 7:24 left to play that again doused the Tigers' rally, after CJ Cansino had brought them to within one point, 67-66.
Belangel's fifth 3-pointer of the game made it 75-68 with more than five minutes to go, and the Blue Eagles would go on to lead by as many as 12 points in the fourth before settling for an 86-79 triumph. It was enough to seal Ateneo's perfect campaign, and a third consecutive title.
"Siguro, 'yung mindset ko lang is for my seniors, 'yun lang talaga," said Belangel.
Ateneo bid goodbye to five seniors after the game — Finals MVP Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Adrian Wong, team captain Mike Nieto, and starting point guard Matt Nieto.
It was Matt Nieto who served as Belangel's greatest motivation, as the veteran had taken the 20-year-old guard under his wing for the past two years.
"I won't let kuya Matt down sa mga sinasabi niya sa akin," said Belangel. "Nire-remind niya ako lagi na, galing off the bench na keep the energy."
"Siguro, mindset ko lang is this is for my seniors. Luckily I hit my shots," he added.
Belangel's clutch performance earned him plenty of praise, with Ravena bestowing him the moniker of "Fireman."
"He made a lot of tough shots, na masasabi natin na parang pamatay-sunog," said Ravena. "Those were the times na parang naiisip namin na, 'Nako humahabol na, humahabol na.' But SJ was there to make a tough shot, and we were all like, parang makakahinga kami ng kaunti."
For Belangel, his big shots were a credit to Nieto, as well as to Ateneo's other point guard, Tyler Tio, whom he supplanted in the rotation this year.
"Nakuha ko kay kuya Matt 'yung confidence na puso lang. Na, alam niyo naman si kuya Matt, di 'yan magpapatalo," he said.
"And siyempre kay kuya Ty. 'Wag niyo kakalimutan 'yun. Doon ako kumukuha ng confidence sa kanilang dalawa. So ayu, nashu-shoot ko."
Having already proven himself on the finals stage, Belangel is expected to carry an even bigger load for the Blue Eagles next season, when they ride into battle sans their highly regarded seniors. After serving as Nieto's understudy for the past two years, Belangel said he is ready to step up as the lead guard of the defending champions.
"Hindi lang namana ko," Belangel also pointed out. "And'yan si Kuya Ty."
"Sa mga nagagawa ko ngayon, dahil sa kanilang dalawa 'yun ni Kuya Matt saka ni Kuya Ty," he added. "In practices, we push each other hard para in game, lahat ng mga ginagawa namin, alam na namin. Next man up, kami ni Kuya Ty, hindi ako lang."
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