The Ateneo Blue Eagles took Game 1 of the UAAP finals, 88-79, after outlasting a gritty performance from the UP Fighting Maroons.
Amid the hard-fought plays and brilliant performances, the injury to UP's Bright Akhuetie was one of the critical moments that affected the complexion of the game. With 6:31 remaining in the third quarter and Ateneo owning a six-point lead, Akhuetie ran down the court and was nudged in the back by Angelo Kouame. Akhuetie's knee was caught in an awkward position and buckled against the weight of Ateneo's 6-foot-10 center. He immediately fell on the floor, wincing in pain.
Fortunately, the MVP frontrunner was able to return to the bench late in the period and eventually reentered the court early in the fourth quarter. Hopefully, his worst fears have already come to pass with his injury being ruled as a hyperextended left knee. He will still get checked in the coming days.
After the game, Kouame admitted that he had no intention to hurt Akhuetie.
"That wasn't intentional," he said. "People can get mad, but it wasn't intentional. I wanted to go up but he was in my way. I didn't know what really happened. I'm really sorry about that. It's the game of basketball, anything can happen. I'm really sorry about that if that offended people."
The UP faithful inside the Mall of Asia Arena understandably took offense to the incident and showered Kouame with boos and jeers every time he held the ball. Kouame still finished with a respectable line of seven points and 12 rebounds but was visibly affected in the hostile atmosphere. His youth and inexperience showed in the pressure-packed game.
"It had an effect on me," the 19-year-old opened up. "We're all players, but I still had to stay focused on the game."
"I mean, it has an impact on me, especially right now. I really feel that. I never thought it's gonna happen but this has happened and I have to accept that and live with that cause it's my rookie year. More things are gonna happen and hopefully, I'll be ready for that," he went on.
Kouame also tried to air his side to Akhuetie but the UP center paid no attention.
"I apologized to him but he didn't want to understand," Kouame said. "I get it, I get his irritation, but it's still basketball. I can't complain about it."
After a tension-filled first game, all eyes will be on the intense matchup between the two reinforcements. And for Kouame, he's hoping that he'll be ready mentally for a bounce back game from Akhuetie and the Fighting Maroons.
"I expect a lot of tough matchups especially in the next game. I hope I'm gonna be ready for that," he said.