Ateneo De Manila University lives another day after pulling off a crucial 69-66 victory over University of the Philippines in Game Two of the UAAP Season 84 Men’s Basketball Finals.
It was deja vu for Blue Eagles head coach Tab Baldwin after going through a tightly-contested affair to carve a hard-fought win over the Fighting Maroons. According to him, it reminded him of their past encounters against La Salle, whom they met in the Finals for two straight years in seasons 79 and 80.
“Just sitting here thinking that this Finals series feels like that La Salle series.
“It doesn’t feel like college basketball – feels like something more is at stake,” Baldwin reflected. “I think that UP brings really, really high quality basketball to this series and tonight we responded.”
In Season 79, Ateneo had to face a supercharged La Salle squad coached by Aldin Ayo, which had Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng as its leaders. They also had the likes of Ricci Rivero, Justine Baltazar, Kib Montalbo, Aljun Melecio, Jason Perkins, and Abu Tratter.
The Green Archers went on to sweep the championship series against the Blue Eagles to claim their ninth UAAP title.
After Teng graduated, La Salle still paraded a loaded team in Season 80 headlined by Mbala, Melecio, Rivero, Baltazar, Montalbo, along with Leonard Santillan. The Blue Eagles came back and dethroned their archrivals, 2-1, in the Finals to give Baldwin his first championship as head coach of Ateneo.
For the multi-titled head coach, the level of physicality was the key denominator between the previous La Salle squads and this year’s UP team. However, he pointed out that the Fighting Maroons have been extra aggressive in getting rebounds, which continues to give them a major advantage in this series.
“Certainly, the physical toughness of UP is very similar to the physical toughness of La Salle — the way they play physical defense,” opined Baldwin. “But the UP team is truly a great rebounding team and this is such a big key, I think, in winning championships. Statistically, we’ve been a very, very strong rebounding team this year as well but we’ve had our hands full — more than had our hands full with UP.
“I think they’re a better rebounding team than La Salle was. La Salle probably shot the ball a little bit better with [Aljun] Melecio and [Andrei] Caracut and these guys that were very, very good perimeter players.”
Still, Baldwin gave credit to UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde and admitted how hard he has been tested in this series, similar to the tough challenge given in the past by Aldin Ayo.
“But both series felt like we were in a fight, felt like nothing was easy. There wasn’t an easy possession,” he said.
“In all honesty, I’m a big Aldin Ayo fan. Certainly, Goldwin [Monteverde] is making me a big fan of his as well. The way he’s coaching his team and the way that they’re playing in big moments. This is a high quality coaching staff led by Goldwin.
“Nothing is easy, very much like the La Salle series. It’s tough. If ever there’s a flip of a coin, this Game Three could be that,” he continued.
The American-Kiwi coach also bared his satisfaction with his team’s performance in Game Two which allowed them to even the series and force a rubber match on Friday. However, he pointed out that they still have more room for improvement in terms of shooting from the foul line after making just 11-of-20 of their free throw attempts.
“We did the job in key statistical categories apart from our free-throw shooting — everything else on the stat sheet looks pretty good for us,” Baldwin claimed. “So we have to continue to get our minds right for the free-throw shooting.”
In the end, making the necessary adjustments and learning from the lessons that they gained from a tough Game One loss paved the way for the Blue Eagles to extend the series.
“I think the loss in Game One in a way is a blessing. It’s a blessing because we fail in life. It happens to everybody. I think that our team — our players, our coaches — we looked at that as an opportunity to grow,” he continued.
“We looked at that as a situation in which we had to acknowledge we weren’t good enough and we had to acknowledge the changes were required mentally, physically, in all of us. We made those changes and really it’s just enough for us to survive.”
For Baldwin, their ability to execute crucial plays in crunch time allowed them to best UP in Game Two. Though they allowed the Fighting Maroons to get back in the game in the last few minutes, the Blue Eagles still managed to have an answer for every run put up by their opponents which led them to the win.
“I really think that the difference in the game, the two games, were so similar. The difference in the game was we made some big plays at the end. In Game 1, they made big plays at the end. Apart from that, you can’t really separate these two teams very much from one another so I think Game Three is going to be potentially an epic game and we’re excited that we’re there.”
When asked if the hectic schedule had any effect on their preparations for a crucial Game Two, Baldwin claimed that they’re already used to it. Despite the short amount of time in between games, the Blue Eagles still managed to learn from their mistakes and have an improved performance which allowed them to get a grueling victory this time around.
“Honestly, I think that’s a better question for the players. I mean, coaches, it’s a normal job for us — reviewing videos, staying up late talking about gameplans but the players are more involved,” Baldwin shared.
“We’ve had long, long meetings with the players and when I say long, I’m not exaggerating at all. We really talked about everything. We talked philosophy, we talked mentality, we talked physicality, we talked gameplans, and we looked at a lot of videos because we made so many mistakes in Game One.”
Heading to a must-win Game Three, Baldwin hopes to put their win behind them as they work towards overcoming another tough challenge in a bid to successfully defend their crown on Friday evening.
“I hope that the players believed that that bore fruit in today’s game. I feel it did but again, heading into Game Three, we have to put everything that happened for Game Two behind us now. We have a whole new challenge ahead of us so whatever work we did, whatever sacrifices we made over the last few days — and they were significant — we should expect to be facing the same thing.”