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Blue Eaglets crowned, Sotto, Belangel shine.

By Jerome Lagunzad

There's a reason why towering Kai Sotto is considered the future of Philippine basketball.

The promising 7-footer proved a cut above the rest down the stretch as Ateneo outlasted National University in a pulsating finish, 63-58, last night to clinch the UAAP Season 80 juniors basketball crown at The Arena in San Juan City.

Sotto, still scratching the surface of his full potential at 15 years old, conspired with veterans SJ Belangel, Joaqui Manuel and Dave Ildefonso in the Blue Eaglets' decisive 15-4 onslaught in the last four minutes to foil the upset-conscious Bullpups in what turned out to be a classic winner-take-all.

The thrilling victory enabled Ateneo to bounce back from a 70-67 loss in Game 2 last Tuesday that denied it a perfect 16-game season sweep and a return to the Promised Land since 2015.

The Blue Eaglets also hiked their league-best juniors basketball title haul to 19 overall and achieved what their senior counterparts did last year as Ateneo completed a sweep of the two UAAP cage crowns for the first time since Season 73 (2010-2011).

Sotto gets tons of credit after he reasserted his dominance down low with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks off the bench, capped by a go-ahead putback off a Manuel miss that made it 60-58 for Ateneo with 25.3 seconds to play.

"Ginawa ko lang 'yung best ko. Sabi kasi ni coach (Joe Silva), it's all about who wants it more. Wala munang pagod-pagod kasi wala ng bukas sa laban na 'to," said the son of former pro Ervin Sotto.

"Sabi niya (his dad Ervin), gawin ko lang 'yung ginagawa ko kasi araw-araw naman ako naglalaro. Bakit pa ako kakabahan? Ilang beses na rin namin 'tong ginagwa sa team so wala ng dahilan para kabahan."

Belangel, despite another rough shooting from the field, also proved fearless by tallying seven of his 16 points in the final frame, including the insurance freebies with 9.8 seconds left that stretched their lead back to four.

Ildefonso also made his presence felt with 13 points and nine rebounds while Joaqui Manuel overcame a sprained ankle by adding four points, highlighted by a crucial lay-up off a big steal against NU counterpart Rhayyan Amsali in the critical stage.

"During the fourth quarter break, I asked them 'How much do you want this?' I told them that this will all boil down to energy, execution and defense. And in the end, it's all about defense," said Silva.

The Bullpups, despite falling short, should keep their heads high after they recovered from an anemic six-point outing in the opening period and gave the favored Blue Eaglets all they could handle.

Batang Gilas standout Terrence Fortea fired all but two of his 14 points in their second half uprising and set up Amsali for an easy lay-up that gave the Bullpups a 54-48 lead with 4:24 to play, only to suffer a total collapse this time.

The scores:

ATENEO 63 - Sotto 19, Belangel 16, Ildefonso 13, Credo 4, Manuel 4, Chiu 4, David 3, Escalona 0, Jaymalin 0, Santos 0.

NU 58 - Fortea 14, Minerva 13, Manalang 8, Oczon 7, Amsali 6, Javillonar 5, Pangilinan 3, Malonzo 2, Coyoca 0.

Quarters: 15-6, 28-23, 44-43, 63-58


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Title Annotation:Basketball
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Date:Mar 3, 2018
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