MANILA, Philippines – When the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles made it to the finals of the UAAP Season 79 tournament, it was a surprise for virtually everyone who follows collegiate basketball.
The exodus of seven players – many of whom were blue chip recruits – during the offseason put new head coach Tab Baldwin in a difficult position heading into Season 79. There, they fumbled their way into a 4-4 start – including a blowout loss to De La Salle University and an upset at the hands of University of the Philippines.
Somehow, the Blue Eagles put a winning streak together to end the elimination round, highlighted by an upset of La Salle. They battled past then-defending champions Far Eastern University in the Final 4, but were felled by a superior La Salle squad in the finals.
"La Salle was sort of that mountain the distance," Baldwin told TJ Manotoc on "The Score" on Monday, as he looked back at Ateneo's surprising feat in Season 79. "We had beaten them handily in the second round, but we knew the playoffs were a different animal."
"We still believed," he added. "But with the experience and the system that they had, they taught us a lesson in the playoffs. I think we learned that lesson reasonably well."
Baldwin must have been remarkably confident that his Blue Eagles would not only learn those lessons, but also apply them to great effect in the next season. In a mass at the Church of the Gesu after their loss to La Salle in the finals, he told the Ateneo community: "We shall return and be champions in 2017."
The Kiwi-American is not one to make predictions, but sometimes, he does make promises. On Sunday, the Blue Eagles fulfilled that promise.
This time around, few were surprised to see the Blue Eagles make it to the UAAP Season 80 finals. Their dominant elimination round campaign was a bit of a shock and few had them going 13-1 and being on the brink of a sweep. But with Baldwin steering the ship, and his players following his instructions to the letter, Ateneo made it back to the championship round, and this time, they brought down La Salle.
An 88-86 victory in Game 3 last Sunday – a triumph iced by an Isaac Go dagger – gave Ateneo its ninth UAAP title, and the first since 2012, when they won the last of five consecutive championships.
Lessons from La Salle
For Baldwin, the road to the championship began on that painful night in December 2016, when they bowed to the Green Archers, 79-72, in Game 2 of the Season 79 finals.
"We didn't so much gain confidence from being in the finals a year before," he explained. "I think we gained an understanding."
"And with that understanding, we went to work," he said.
The first thing that the Blue Eagles understood – and perhaps the most important – was that they were at a true physical disadvantage against La Salle. "They literally could bully us," Baldwin pointed out. "And I'm not saying that in a negative way… they're just physically superior."
In response, Baldwin had the Blue Eagles hit the weight room. Simply put, they needed to get stronger – and for that to happen, they needed to work, and work hard.
Baldwin was admittedly amazed at how his players welcomed the challenge of working hard. Part of their build-up to Season 80 was a training camp in Baler, where he simply "crucified these guys."
"I put them through the worst things you can imagine, and it's all to build that esprit de corps there, and to build that team," he explained.
"This team… dedicated itself to hard work," Baldwin also said. "I could not give these guys enough to do, and I think that's a revelation for me – spending 35 years coaching pros you can't ask pros what I asked these guys to do, and they did it."
"They did every single thing that was asked of them, and they wanted more."
The results were clear in the season. Thirdy Ravena, the eventual Finals MVP, looked stronger than ever. Their big men – Chibueze Ikeh and Isaac Go – had no issues in defending the post against bigger foreign student-athletes, including La Salle's Ben Mbala. First-year guard Gian Mamuyac put on 13 pounds of muscle.
But virtually every Blue Eagle showed up to Season 80 as stronger versions of themselves. If they were going to lose this year, it will not be because other teams can overpower them with their physicality.
Calm amidst mayhem
The second thing that Baldwin and the Ateneo coaching staff understood was this: they needed to play better against pressure. La Salle, of course, is famous for its "mayhem" style that coach Aldin Ayo implemented and the Green Archers thrive in fast-paced games.
Yet it is not just La Salle that prefers an up-tempo game. National University, University of the East, and Adamson University also anchor their defenses on the full court press. If Ateneo wanted to be successful in Season 80, they were going to have to learn how to remain calm amid the aggressive traps of opposing squads.
"We couldn't turn the ball over," Baldwin stressed.
To do so, Ateneo deliberately went against the grain. While half of the teams in the league sped up, they played at the slowest pace in the league. Baldwin implemented a patient offense built on finding the best possible shot, and as a result, Ateneo became the best offensive team in the league. The Blue Eagles also followed his marching orders: they turned the ball over only 16.4 times per game in the elimination round – the best mark in the league.
"I think our 12 turnovers in Game 3 was the final straw," Baldwin mused. "After turning it over 21 times in Game 2, and being so frustrated by that."
"We finally got to where we were able to implement all of the lessons that we've been learning throughout the UAAP and the games with La Salle, and understand that you've got to be able to attack their pressure," he explained.
When Ateneo fell apart in Game 2 of the UAAP finals – where they squandered a 21-point lead – they committed 21 turnovers that led to 16 points for La Salle. In Game 3, they had only 12 turnovers against the Green Archers' pressure defense.
"Those two things were what we centered our training on, in order to say that we're capable of winning the championship," said Baldwin.
Game 3 of the Finals against La Salle was when everything came together for Ateneo. They only had 12 turnovers, and they did not flinch in the face of the Green Archers' physicality. The Blue Eagles held Mbala, the two-time MVP, in check: he only had 19 points and 14 rebounds in the game – well below his usual numbers.
La Salle's physicality – a major talking point in the series – was brushed off by the Blue Eagles. "We had to come into the games knowing it was going to be a physical game, and that we had to come in and be the aggressor," said Aaron Black.
"Alam naman namin lahat na andoon 'yung physicality ng La Salle," said co-captain Mike Nieto. "We had to cope with their physicality to win the championship series. We knew that was their game plan, even against other teams. We just had to cope with them."
'We did it as a team'
There is a set of pictures going viral on Twitter, in the wake of Ateneo's triumph. John Oranga, a former photographer for The Guidon, showed how much can change in the span of 361 days.
In one picture, Baldwin is comforting a heartbroken Isaac Go; in the next, he is hugging and celebrating with a triumphant Thirdy Ravena. In one picture, Vince Tolentinos is in tears as he hugs a teammate; in the next, Tolentino is being showered with confetti as he hugs Go, as he graduates a champion.
The road to the top of the UAAP was an arduous one for the Blue Eagles. Yet on social media, they were saying the same thing: "It was all worth it."
For Baldwin, who has been a coach for 35 years, it was simply a delight to see his players get their reward for the "brutally hard work" that they did since losing to La Salle in Season 79.
"These boys worked a long time to get here," he said. "I told them, 'We didn't reach a peak. We reached a plateau, because there has to be room for the whole team'."
"We didn't do it as individuals; we did it as a team. So nobody stands at the peak alone. They stand there as a team, and they're standing proud of what they've accomplished, and they're standing proud as Ateneans," he added.
"And I'm very, very proud to be a part of that."
Of course, staying at the plateau will be another matter entirely. Already, Baldwin is looking ahead to their title defense – and he is getting his players ready for what should be an even more arduous journey.
"The bad news is, this just confirms everything we did," he said. "So next year, we'll work even harder."
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)