To be a champion team, everyone in the squad must be able to contribute something. For Ateneo de Manila University — winners of the UAAP Season 85 Men’s Basketball Tournament — a lot of players stepped up in a big way behind closed doors.
After his Blue Eagles defeated University of the Philippines 75-68 in game three of the finals, coach Tab Baldwin paid homage to certain members of the team, who were key in preparing the Katipunan school’s main rotation in their tough battle against the Fighting Maroons.
“There’s this thing in our organization now, you’ve heard of BEBOB, we’ve beat that to death. But there’s this thing now called ‘The Buffalos’,” said Baldwin referring to the likes of JC Fetalvero, Jacob Lao, Kyle Ong, Ian Espinosa, and Inand Fornillos. “Nobody knows how important the Buffalos are.
“A big, big chunk of this championship trophy belongs in the hands of a group of young men that most of you probably don’t even know their names. Unfortunately in team sports, sometimes that’s what happens,” he added.
“But never have I ever coached a championship team where it was truer that every single player and then some on our roster, some more players outside of our roster deserve a piece of that trophy. Never have I ever coached a team where I can say that more honestly.”
With Ateneo needing to muster every resource it had to get back on top, the Katipunan school freshened things up in its pre-game preparations.
The Buffalos would then play a key role by providing a more realistic scrimmage by running plays from the Blue Eagles’ opponents’ playbooks.
“You can’t imagine the role they play every day in practice. They simulated UP. They simulated Adamson. They simulated every opponent,” said Baldwin. “They didn’t even run our stuff in practice. They would dedicate themselves – and some of the coaches – they would dedicate themselves entirely to the opposition.
“We never did that before. The reason we never did that before was we felt so powerful and so strong in what we did that we sort of discounted our opponents feeling like we would just roll over them,” he continued.
“And this year we didn’t believe that.”
One of those key players who benefitted from the Buffalos’ efforts was eventual Season 85 Finals MVP Ange Kouame, who averaged 17.7 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks in the three-game series. Dealing with a bad knee throughout the campaign, he credited those around him for making sure he is at the top of his game on the court.
“Like I said, it’s not about Ange Kouame. It’s about the whole team,” said Kouame. “When it comes to the bench players, especially Jacob, Inand… They really give their heart during practices.
“I missed a lot of practices during the season because of my knee so props to them for making us better. This is where we are right now because of them. I’m really thankful for those kind of teammates who really give their hearts and leave their minutes out just to make other people better,” the Finals MVP continued.
“So yeah. It’s about the whole team. It’s about the Buffalos.”
For BJ Andrade, who decided to return to the program after its loss to UP in Season 84, the win has more than justified his decision. He contributed 10 points, including two crucial free throws in the endgame, alongside three rebounds and two assists in 27:58 minutes on the floor.
As a leader in Ateneo, Andrade was able to grow into his role and it was just right that he performed a magnificent trophy lift to symbolize how much he has developed as a leader. As a captain, it did not come as any surprise that he credited those on the periphery for his moment of glory.
“Gusto ko lang magpasalamat sa mga teammates ko,” the captain said.
“Grabe yung mga sakripisyo nila this season especially yung mga Buffalos. Sila Jacob, Inand, JC, Kyle, and Ian.”
The strength of the team lies in each member and Ateneo’s depth this season paid dividends despite it being made the most of in practice. Just like the BEBOB movement before them, the Buffalos have made their mark in the Baldwin era.