The Ateneo Blue Eagles' next man up mentality was on full display in their top-seed clinching victory over the De La Salle Green Archers Sunday.
Early foul trouble hounded big men Angelo Kouame and Isaac Go, which prompted the defending champions to field in a small lineup with William Navarro at the center position in the first half.
The first-year forward delivered seven points, all in the second quarter, to help Ateneo knot up the score at halftime. More importantly, he stepped up on the defensive end, holding the line even without their usual rim protectors on the floor.
"William Navarro did a great job for us. He's a power forward but he had to play center for us," said assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga. "We had to depend on him. Even Matthew Daves gave us quality minutes and that enabled us to reserve Ange and George so that in the second half, they won't be in foul trouble. For us, William's performance in the second quarter really gave us a lift."
Thirdy Ravena, who came off the bench for the first time this season, and Mike Nieto also had to veer away from their usual roles to remedy the situation.
"It's all about understanding that in basketball, anything can happen. Everybody has to be ready," said Ravena, who topped with 14 points and ten rebounds. "For us, it's all about the next man up, being ready for whatever situation may arise and I think our team did a pretty good job with that."
"Will and I played big for majority of the minutes in the second quarter so it was different," Ravena continued. "But then again, it's all about doing our roles. It's all about stepping up when we need to step up, so I think that it's really our team attitude."
Being forced to bench their big men was extra challenging for the Blue Eagles because they had to battle a complete La Salle squad. The Green Archers reintegrated the 6-foot-8 Taane Samuel, who suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot, for the first time since the season opener. This added size to an already tall frontcourt that features the likes of Justine Baltazar and Santi Santillan.
"Honestly, I had a difficult time because I had to guard big guys like Samuel," said Navarro. "But the opportunity presented itself. Our bigs were in foul trouble, so I had to step up my game and contribute as much as I can."
"You couldn't really ask for more from them," Go said about the team's second unit. "They worked hard, grabbed rebounds, executed the offense, and played great defense. It's really been towards like that where we've always had that next man up mentality. That's what we tried to do all year round even with the coaching staff, and it's paying dividends as you saw a while ago."
Indeed, relying on the next player available has been the Blue Eagles' calling card throughout the season. Now, they're in the best position heading into the Final Four. No matter what happens in their last match against UST, they will finish on top of the standings armed with a twice-to-beat incentive.
"I'm just doing my job just like my teammates," added Ravena. "I know it sounds redundant but that's what made us successful. We're here now because of our servanthood, our mantra. We do it because of our teammates."