After that heartbreaking loss to La Salle in the 2001 Finals, Ateneo had only one thing in mind: bring the UAAP title to Katipunan. And get it at the expense of La Salle, who was now seeking a historic five-peat.
With Villanueva opting to remain in the roster to reach the full extent of his eligibility, the Blue Eagles had an intact lineup with the exception of the re-inclusion of forward Wesley Gonzales, who failed to make the cut in the 2001 roster, and the exit of sharpshooter Magnum Membrere and slotman Paolo Bugia, who both tore their anterior cruciate ligaments in the Eagles’ pre-season outing in the Philippine Basketball League under Hapee Toothpaste.
It was the year La Salle was so formidable, even without Ritualo and Allado in its roster that it almost swept the eliminations and wiped out the Final Four with an instant Finals slot under the auspices of the brilliant backcourt triumvirate of Mike Cortez, Joseph Yeo and Mac Cardona. But guess who spoiled the Archer party? A rising Ateneo team, behind a redeemed Gonzales and bench player Andrew Cruz, who stopped a La Salle sweep at the end of eliminations with a shocking 83-71 win.
This pulled La Salle back into a Final Four battle against UST, which it easily beat with its twice-to-beat edge, and immediately barged into the Finals. But Ateneo faced contrasting uphill battle against upstart UE, which boasted of such big names as James Yap, Ronald Tubid, Paul Artadi, and a rookie named Nino Canaleta. But it seemed the Eagles showed a bigger desire to claim a Finals seat, as they amazingly beat the Red Warriors twice to enter the Finals as well, capped by “The Shot,” the game-winning jumper by guard Gec Chia at the buzzer of Game 2.
A third “Dream Series” between Ateneo and La Salle in the UAAP Finals was now a reality. Both teams had split the first two games of their Best of Three going into a winner-take-all Game 3.
It was a nip-and-tuck affair in the first few minutes as Villanueva and his buddy ex-Eaglet, now La Salle starter BJ Manalo exchanging baskets. But when the Eagle defense steadied and muted the Archers’ offensive rotation, Chia and a visibly ill Fonacier conspired for a 6-0 run at the buzzer to end the first quarter with a 23-17 Ateneo lead.
Manalo waxed hot in the next quarter but the Eagles showed even scoring and perfectly executed plays that allowed Chia and Gonzales to deliver and mount a 33-27 lead for the Blue Eagles. Gonzales would then score an additional 10 points towards the end of the half to stretch the lead to 12, 40-28. But the Archers fought back with Cardona and Adonis Sta. Maria teaming up for a 9-2 run at the end of the half to cut the Eagle lead to five, 42-37.
By the third quarter, Ateneo remained composed and collared La Salle with its sticky defense. Alvarez, Fonacier and Villanueva made their presence felt on the shaded lane to give Ateneo a 56-52 lead going into the deciding fourth quarter.
And, indeed, Ateneo wouldn’t be denied. LA Tenorio swished two consecutive triples and Gonzales hitting from under the rim to start the final canto with an imposing 64-54 lead, seven minutes remaining.
But the champion team that it is, La Salle won’t be denied a good fight. The Archers fought back with a 6-2 run, capped by a Cortez triple, that placed La Salle into breathing distance—66-60, five minutes to go.
Then it was in these last five minutes Ateneo realized that its dream was coming to fulfillment—with Alvarez limiting Cortez’s movements with his brazen defense, La Salle seemed to have a few offensive options left. But for Ateneo, it was their moment of glory. With a resurrected Sonny Tadeo delivering clutch baskets and Epok Quimpo, who came in for a fouled out Tenorio, hitting a crucial trey, the Blue Eagles seemed unreachable with a 73-62 lead with 1:42 left.
Sta. Maria never gave up and scored on a putback to cut the lead to nine. Sensing Sta. Maria’s intensity, Gonzales took his defense a notch higher in trying to deny La Salle’s hardworking slotman. Gonzales would block what could have been Sta. Maria’s emphatic, monstrous dunk that could have rallied the Archers into a comeback.
Since then, the Archers lost the intensity and fire that lit them up through the past four seasons as league champions. And it was all just a matter of time before Ateneo finally took home its first UAAP title in 13 years, with a 77-70 championship win, in a season they would call “unforgettable.”
Let's get ready to Rumble in the Jungle when the bells will Jingle to start the Bungle!