Ateneo's Rafael Verano vs UST. UAAP PHOTO

Ateneo’s Rafael Verano vs UST. UAAP PHOTO

Even as Ateneo cruised past yet another hapless victim with a wire-to-wire show of excellence, Adamson exposed the vulnerability of one of the Blue Eagles’ supposed threats.

The defending champion assembled a 40-minute showcase of consistency in demolishing University of Santo Tomas (UST), 101-51, in the UAAP Season 84 men’s basketball tournament on Friday at Mall of Asia Arena.

“Apart from being a little bit loose with the ball [and committing] 19 turnovers, I think that it was a pretty comprehensive performance on both ends of the floor and it feels good to everybody when I think you walk off the floor feeling like you played 40 minutes of basketball as a team,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said.

Ateneo had six players in double figures, shot 57.6 percent from the field, assisted on 27 of its 38 made field goals and scored more points in the first quarter than UST coughed up in the first half. The Blue Eagles led by as many as 53 points, logged their 36th straight victory and, with their 10th straight this season, are within four wins of claiming an outright championship slot.

As if that wasn’t enough to send a message to the rest of the field that everyone is virtually playing for second place, University of the Philippines (UP), perhaps the only team that can match Ateneo’s talent depth, found out how difficult it is to stay in step with the Eagles.

Clutch baskets

Jerom Lastimosa hit clutch baskets in the last 23 seconds as the Falcons snapped the Maroons’ eight-game run with a 66-58 upset.

“We prepared hard for UP,” said Lastimosa, nephew of PBA legend Jojo Lastimosa. “We remember how when they beat us in the first round (73-71), it was us crying. Now it’s our time to celebrate.”

Adamson upped its record to 4-6, forcing a logjam for the No. 4 spot after Far Eastern U (FEU) stunned National University, 59-57, on a triple by hawk-eyed forward Xyrus Torres with two seconds remaining in the game.

UP’s loss left it at 8-2, still in second place but now trailing Ateneo by two games.

And having been unbothered by the opposition so far this season, the Eagles are now looking to slay inner foes.

“I think we just need to mentally prepare ourselves for each game,” said forward Raffy Verano, who led Ateneo with 18 points and seven rebounds. “Coach Tab, the coaches have been harping on that, we have a lot of mental lapses, especially in the second half. We’re talking within the players, mentally we need to come to the game with a killer instinct. I think today, we actually showed a little bit of that. I think moving forward, it’ll just keep going up and up.”

And as much as the Eagles carved out the biggest margin of victory since the UAAP computerized its stats-archiving, Baldwin wasn’t quite sure if this was Ateneo’s statement game of the season.

“I think that’s a grand thought to have and I would like for that to be true,” said Baldwin after their blowout win. “But I think that we’ll only know whether that’s true or not if we follow it up with other games where the players really keep their shoulders to the grindstone and keep working hard right throughout the game and stick together and work with one another.”

Little victories

And as catching up with Ateneo has become an impossible task, at least for the classification round, schools will have to look to celebrate whatever victories they can manage.

“Our mentality is just go day-to-day, game-to-game and see where it leaves us,” said Adamson coach Nash Racela, admitting that his team wasn’t looking at the long-term at the moment. “I’m just so happy that in one month of playing, the players responded and proved they can.”

His brother, FEU coach Olsen Racela, also expressed optimism that his team was moving in the right direction.

“The shot of Xyrus won the game for us. But [our] character of not giving up and trusting one another is very important for us,” Olsen said, adding that Torres’ shot was a result of the Tamaraws learning “to trust each other.”

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