MANILA, Philippines—Ateneo center Ange Kouame was apologetic after his slight nudge to University of the Philippines big man Bright Akhuetie caused the Nigerian player to be stretchered out of the Mall of Asia Arena court.
Akhuetie and Kouame were battling for position in the third quarter of Game 1 of the UAAP Season 81 finals, when Kouame gave the UP center a little shove that caused Akhuetie to crumble to the floor.
It was a scene out of UP's worst nightmares as Akhuetie, who is set to be named Most Valuable Player of Season 81, clutched his left leg while repeatedly slapping the court. He was writhing in pain, and had to be taken to the dugout on a stretcher with 6:31 to play in the quarter.
"That wasn't intentional," Kouame said after the game. "People can get mad, but it wasn't intentional. I wanted to go up, but he was in my way. I didn't really know what happened."
"I'm really sorry about that," he added. "It's the game of basketball, and anything can happen. I'm really sorry about that, if that offended people."
Kouame said that he tried to apologize to Akhuetie for what happened, but was brushed off.
"He didn't want to understand. I get it, I get his irritation, but it's still basketball. I can't complain about it," he added.
Kouame also maintained that he said nothing to Paul Desiderio, who was jawing at him after the incident with Akhuetie.
"I didn't say anything to him. He wanted to fight. Those people who know me know that I'm not that guy," Kouame insisted.
Akhuetie wound up missing the rest of the third period, but was back on the UP bench by the fourth quarter. He returned at the 7:04 mark of the final frame, to thunderous applause from the UP supporters. The Nigerian would later be diagnosed with hyperextended left knee.
Unfortunately for the Fighting Maroons, the return of their star center was not enough. Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena conspired in a dominant fourth quarter for Ateneo, lifting the Blue Eagles to an 88-79 win and putting them on the brink of the UAAP title.
"It was a tough game," said Kouame. "But you have to stay focused, because the way we want to play, it wasn't that good in the expectation of the coaches. Hopefully, we bounce back."
Kouame's performance had a lot to do with Ateneo's struggles: the Ivorian center had only 7 points on 2-of-6 shooting, along with 12 rebounds. He was clearly shaken by the UP crowd, who peppered him with boos every time he touched the ball and every time he walked to the free throw line.
The rookie center didn't deny that the crowd affected him.
"I mean, it has an impact on me, especially right now. I really feel that," Kouame admitted. "I never thought it's gonna happen, but this has happened, and I have to accept that and live with that, because it's my rookie year."
"More things are gonna happen, and hopefully, I'll be ready for that," he added.
Ateneo will try to secure its second straight title on Wednesday, with Kouame hoping to bounce back from a subpar offensive performance.
"I expect a lot of tough match-ups, especially in the next game. I hope I'm gonna be ready for that," he said.
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