I wrote on Facebook before the game that Ateneo must never underestimate the heart of a wounded champion. True enough, UP seemed to be on their way to overcome yet another seemingly insurmountable lead, cutting a 20-point bubble at the start of the third quarter to three with a full shotclock left.
Alarcon’s Hail Mary three off his own missed free throw pretty summed up UP’s identity as a basketball squad: The crammer.
That was the way they won their first title since 1986–it had to be come-from-behind, it had to be from a buzzer beater.
But this season, it was Johnny-come-lately.
Precisely because Ateneo had the tools and maturity to protect a big lead. They were the three-peat champion before the pandemic shut the league for two years.
They have the heart of a champion, but the one who exemplified that was Ange Kouame.
After the rain of confetti, Tab Baldwin told the press that he is “blessed” to have his players.
He is blessed to have Ange.
Covering Ange from the sidelines was a transcendental experience.
You could hear the thundering thuds of his footsteps as he runs back to defend.
You could hear his meat pounding against the meat of the opposing big in every post-up, box-out, and defense.
You could hear his deep breath and groans–the adrenaline rush in him was palpable.
He left every millimeter of his seven-foot frame on the skin of every Fighting Maroon he bumped with.
He left every millisecond of his four-year college career on the floor for one final dance last night.
The floor of the Big Dome needed a smoke after.
Ange was so dominant that reigning MVP Malick Diouf could afford only 7 points and 19 rebounds.
The former was like Wilt Chamberlain outplaying a gifted but offensively-challenged Bill Russell, but with Wilt in a winning team.
And last night, I’ve understood what those who have witnessed Wilt’s game in person felt—the tour de force of a lumbering big maximizing all his length, strength, and verticality to dominate the game.
I’ve covered Greg Slaughter in an Ateneo uniform a decade ago. He was taller by an inch, but he was playing in an era of 6’6” centers. He dominated because you can’t teach height. But it was different playing against Junemar Fajardo in the pros.
Ange, in his college days, faced the likes of Diouf, Bright Akhuetie, and Soulemane Chabi Yo, who were all MVPs. And in his stint with the national team as a naturalized Filipino, he held his own against the likes of former PBA import Ricardo Ratliffe and the NBA’s tallest active player Boban Marjanovic.
You can’t teach height, but you can’t teach passion either.
Ange playing for Ateneo, at the collegiate level, is a cheat code. He does not belong to college. He belongs to the world. And I would dare say that his impact in the national team was more felt than Jordan Clarkson’s, who still could not beat South Korea. Ange vanquished that team—twice—with an all-amateur team.
That is why UP should not feel shame for last night’s defeat. They have scaled and conquered Mount Kouame last summer. No one could erase that from history.
* * *