The Benilde Blazers succumbed to the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons, ending their stint in the Strong Group Realty Ballout Sports Inter-Collegiate Champions Challenge 2023 on March 31 at the Central Recreation and Fitness Center at New Era University.
The Blazers opened the tournament against the five-peat National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities (NAASCU) champions, the Saint Clare College of Caloocan. The ball game was a back-and-forth affair throughout, although the Blazers had a hard time containing the offense of the Saints headed by star forward Johnsherick Estrada. The Blazers would trail by single digits for most of the game, although they would weather the storm in the final period and keep the ball game close, led by standouts Miguel Corteza and Miguel Oczon. However, Saint Clare would get the last laugh after clutch baskets from Megan Galang. The Saints won the ball game, 67-69.
The Blazers faced the defending UAAP champions, the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles, on March 28, although on the morning of the same day, a fire broke out around the Benilde Sports & Dormitory Complex, affecting most of the Blazers’ causing the game to be canceled, the game was set to be rescheduled on a later date; however, the game was later on forfeited, and the win was awarded to the Blue Eagles.
The following day, still without a win, the Blazers were determined to win their final game in the eliminations round, going up against the Our Lady of Fatima University (OLFU) Phoenix. Similarly to their game against Saint Clare, the ball game was close for the most part. Both teams were eyeing a win to move on to the semifinals. However, the Blazers would outlast their foes in the final minutes, and Oczon would secure the win for the Blazers after clutch makes from the charity line. During the game, the Blazers also fielded their off-season recruits: point guard Jhomel Ancheta and big man Allen Liwag. The Blazers defeated the Phoenix to secure their first win in the tournament, 61-55.
Numerically, the Blue Eagles and the Saints were the two teams from Group B to compete in the semifinals, with similar records of 2-1, However, as announced by TeamAMDG on Twitter, the Blue Eagles will not be able to play on March 31 due to a conflicting team-building session in Baler. Hence, the Blazers assumed the spot statistically and secured a semifinal seat.
Against the UP Fighting Maroons for the semifinals, it was an offensive struggle for both teams to open the ball game, with both squads only converting a field goal each until midway through the first period. The first points of the Blazers will come from a Ladis Lepalam putback, while Francis Lopez opened the scoring for the Fighting Maroons, 2-2. Both teams would then rely on their charities to pile up points. The Fighting Maroons would break the deadlock after a tough finish from Chico Briones, while Prince Carlos answered back with a three to even things up, 6-6. The Blazers would go on a four-to-nothing run after charity conversions from sophomore Carlos Sumabat and a finish underneath from Felipe Marasigan, 11-7. Sophomore guard Joshua Cajucom will nail back-to-back long bombs to give the Blazers the lead to end the first period, 18-15.
Another slow start highlighted the early minutes of the second period; the first basket came from a JD Cagulangan layup to cut the Blazers' lead to one, 18-17. The Blazers can’t seem to crack the basket, remaining scoreless midway through the period. Although Miguel Corteza answered the call after making his patented tear drop after the short intermission, 20-20. The Blazers would buckle onto the momentum, with newly recruited guard Jhomel Ancheta converting a floater, while team captain Robi Nayve knocked down a three of his own, 25-23. Both teams answered with baskets to end the period even, 29-29.
The Fighting Maroons turned their jets on to start the third canto after an early four-to-nothing run, reclaiming the lead, 29-33. After the timeout, the Blazers tried to answer back, although, despite numerous opportunities for a basket, the Blazers couldn't put the ball through the hoop. UP took advantage and slowly pulled away from the Taft squad headed by point guard Janjan Felicilda and reigning UAAP MVP Malik Diouf. The Blazers tried to rally back in the latter part of the period after consecutive makes from Corteza and Miguel Oczon, cutting the deficit to six, 33-39. However, the Fighting Maroons continued to fire from all corners, giving themselves an eleven-point cushion, 40-51, to end the period.
In the payoff period, the Blazers attempted to fight back but couldn’t hit their shots over the suffocating defense of the Fighting Maroons. The Diliman squad would continue to dominate the Blazers. Felicilda would hit a long bomb to extend their lead to fourteen, 40-54. UP would never look back and continue pulling away from the Blazers. The ball game ended with the Fighting Maroons, 49-76.
Diouf was named player of the game after dropping 15 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists.
The Blazers ended their campaign in the Ballout Sports Inter-Collegiate Champions Challenge 2023 with a win-loss record of 1-3.
The Blazers are set to participate in the upcoming Asia Basket International Championship tournament, which will be held at the MABA Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from April 9 to 18.