MANILA, Philippines—ABS-CBN Sports+Action analyst and former Fighting Maroon Mikee Reyes put it best.
"SJ naman," he tweeted during Game 2 of the UAAP Season 82 Finals, referring to Ateneo's sophomore guard, SJ Belangel.
"Five years naman inantay gumraduate si Matt (Nieto)," Reyes said. "Tas susulpot ka?! Alangya." For emphasis, Reyes added the facepalm emoji.
His sentiment was widely shared. Ateneo is set to lose its starting point guard, Matt Nieto, along with four other seniors — Mike Nieto, Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong. All five were integral parts of the team that went a perfect 16-0 in the Season 82 tournament, a run capped by a sweep of University of Santo Tomas in the finals.
Yet even as they prepare to leave, there are already players set to take their place. Belangel seems the most ready. Still just in his second year, Belangel played like a seasoned veteran in the finals, hitting five 3-pointers including two crucial long bombs in the fourth quarter that silenced UST's rallies.
"For me, I just have to be ready," Belangel says. He points out that he's not the only guard ready to step up next year; there is Tyler Tio, too, who saw his minutes slashed this season but has always remained ready when his number was called.
"Hindi lang ako, kun'di 'yung buong team. Walang nag-iisang star player, basta lahat kami mag-contribute, 'yan ang ie-expect niyo sa amin next year, lahat kami ko-contribute. Hindi lang ako. Lahat kami," Belangel said confidently.
Also well-prepared to take on a bigger role is Ange Kouame, Ateneo's starting center who averaged more than 14 points and 12 rebounds in Season 82. Kouame has been the league's best post defender for two seasons now, and next year he expects to take on more responsibility both on and off the court.
"I'm ready to go," Kouame said after their triumph in Game 2. "Next year is gonna be a different challenge than this year."
There are more young players who are eager to show what they have learned from their seniors, eager to continue what they have started, eager to live up to the legacy they leave behind. Among those is Gian Mamuyac, Ateneo's premiere defensive stopper on the perimeter. He has played with the Nieto twins since they were in high school, and he is determined to honor them with his performance next season.
"This is the perfect ending for their UAAP careers, for everything that they have sacrificed, and they've given to the university," said Mamuyac. "They've sacrificed so much for the community, for the program and the culture that they have created for us younger players. It's really something that I wouldn't forget, and I hope that I can continue the culture that they have left."
Mamuyac knows they will miss their seniors, particularly the steadiness and leadership of the Nieto twins. But he is also confident in the players who will remain, and the players who will return, guys such as Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza, who missed out on Season 82. As early as now, Ateneo fans are already anticipating the debuts of the Ramos brothers, Dwight and Eli.
"We will have a great team next year," declared Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.
"Of course, that will be dependent on those guys, but I really believe in this group, and I think our upside is phenomenal. So we will have to realize those aspirations, and from me, expectations."
Ravena, for his part, has no doubt that the players they leave behind will meet the predictably lofty expectations of their coach.
This, as he is confident in the culture that they have built over the past four years, since Baldwin took over Ateneo's program.
"I think for me, ang importante, it's not the players eh. It's the culture, it's about how we play, and we play for one another. As long as it's there, it doesn't matter," said Ravena, who leaves as the league's first ever three-time Finals MVP.
"We've been preaching the next man up for the last four years, and I know whoever steps in our spot, alam namin gagawin nila 'yung pinaka makakaya nila para sa mga teammates nila. I'm very optimistic about it," he added.
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