MANILA, OCTOBER 11, 2008 (STARweek) By Abac Cordero - The 71st season of the University Athletic ASSOCIATION OF the Philippines turned out to be an all-blue affair.

Ateneo, behind its rich winning tradition, reigned supreme this year and looked down on the opposition by winning the seniors and juniors basketball titles in grand fashion.

The season that just ended was quite special for the Blue Eagles and their American coach Norman Black.

The biggest reason, of course, was that it came at the expense of La Salle, their old, fierce and bitter rival. Ateneo swept La Salle in all four matches this year, two of them in the finals.

“La Salle has always been the biggest game for us,” said Black, who won his first UAAP crown for Ateneo since taking over the chores from youthful Sandy Arespacochaga in 2005.

“No matter what the standings are, no matter what’s at stake, La Salle is always the biggest game for Ateneo in the UAAP,” said the American mentor of the age-old rivalry.

During the Thanksgiving Mass at the Ateneo campus hours after the title-clinching win over La Salle Thursday last week, Black held on to the trophy for the Ateneo community to see.

“After all the disappointments, we are champions once more,” he said.

It was the first seniors crown for Ateneo since 2002, the year the Blue Eagles also defeated the Green Archers in the finals. Ateneo’s previous titles came in 1987 and 1988.

Ateneo ended its 2008 campaign the way they started it – by beating La Salle.

For the first time, Ateneo and La Salle drew each other for their first games of the season, and the Blue Eagles drew first blood. In the second round of the elimination, it was Ateneo just the same.

Ateneo lost only once in 14 games in the elims, their only setback dealt by Far Eastern University, which almost lost star forward Mac Baracael to an off-campus shooting incident last July.

Overall, the Blue Eagles posted a 16-1 record this season. Chris Tiu anchored the latest Ateneo win, an emotional one for him since this is his last year in the UAAP. He was already in tears with still two minutes left in the final game.

“I couldn’t control my emotions,” he said. “I can’t describe the feeling because this is my first UAAP championship. Actually, it’s a dream come true. We always fell short in the past.”

Then there’s Rabeh Al-Hussaini, the vastly-improved center who was named the season’s Most Valuable Player; Nonoy Baclao, the defensive specialist who emerged Finals MVP; Ryan Buenafe, the slashing forward and this year’s top rookie; Eric Salamat, who provided the spark off the bench; and Jai Reyes, the dedicated, unselfish quarterback.

Al-Hussaini, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-6 center who can run up and down the court, said he’s looking forward to a second straight crown for the Blue Eagles.

“I’m now hoping for back-to-back titles,” he said. The others did their share, too. They are Yuri Escueta, Nicolas Salva, Jobe Nkemakolam, Kirk Long, Ray-mond Austria, Michael Baldos, Luis Gonzaga, Justin Chua, Chris Suma-linog and Vincent Burke.

“The most satisfying thing is to watch these players grow. As they improve the team improves and the team gets better,” said Black, already a grand slam coach in the PBA even before some of these players were born.

The Blue Eagles were still euphoric, just days after their victory, when their younger counterparts, the Blue Eaglets, completed their own sweep of Far Eastern University in the juniors finals.

The members of the seniors team were present, watching from up in the stands at the San Juan Arena, when the Blue Eaglets regained the title they won in 2006 and lost last year.

“My head is still spinning,” said Black as he watched the juniors game. What he meant, of course, is that he hasn’t gotten over their own big win over La Salle.

And then came another win for Ateneo in the juniors side where players like Jayvee Dumrique (the Finals MVP), Jan Enriquez, Kiefer Ravena, Magic Tiongson, Al Bugarin, Ice Reyes and Ael Banal did their thing.

They just made their seniors proud, and the entire Ateneo community jumping, too.

Yes, indeed, blue’s the color of this UAAP season.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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