MANILA, Philippines – Even though they had a tough Final 4 campaign that was capped by a classic overtime win over Far Eastern University (FEU), the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles are quietly confident as they enter the UAAP Season 80 Finals.
Yes, it is true that after winning their first 13 games of the elimination round, they dropped back-to-back contests – a heartbreaker against De La Salle University, and a shock 13-point defeat against FEU.
It is also true that they were never in control against the Tamaraws in Wednesday's do-or-die game, and needed an incredibly clutch three-pointer from Isaac Go to force overtime.
Yet it is also true that the Blue Eagles showed remarkable composure in crunch time, perfectly executing the play that led to Go's triple, and continued to display that same poise in the extra period, when they finally hacked out an 88-84 victory.
"There was a point there where you could say that you could doubt the character of this team," Ateneo coach Sandy Arespacochaga said following their triumph. "There were moments that FEU really went on a run."
"But you know, it was also a testament to our boys. We're not expecting them to be perfect. They'll commit mistakes. But (it's) how they bounce back from those mistakes," he added.
Arespacochaga noted that even as FEU repeatedly capitalized on Ateneo's errors, the Blue Eagles remained calm, and kept focused. They got back to what worked for them in the elimination round – executing on offense, crashing the boards, and hustling on defense.
"They had to do their job, in order for us to have a chance to win," he said.
Ateneo did it the hard way, but they got the victory needed to march back to the finals. For Arespacochaga, the game could only serve as a lesson for the Blue Eagles as they gear up for a best-of-three championship series against La Salle.
"It's a very good learning opportunity, very good chance for our players to grow, not just as basketball players. This is something that will help them as persons. We're very happy for this kind of opportunity, and game that they got to experience this," said Arespacochaga.
A better team
Still, Ateneo's prolonged Final 4 series against FEU is costly. The Green Archers will have the advantage of rest before Game 1 on Saturday, as La Salle took care of its own semifinals opponent, Adamson University, in just one game.
In contrast, the Blue Eagles have only two days with which to rest, recover, and prepare for the Green Archers and their mayhem.
"It's going to be tough," said Arespacochaga.
"We have no illusion that it's going to be an easy game for us," he also said. 'We have to dig deep and really play, in spite of this game na, we're tired, it went into overtime. Fatigue is not a factor right now."
"We're going to find a way to overcome that."
Despite his team's fatigue and relatively short preparation time, however, Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin has reason to be optimistic ahead of their finals series. Last season, there was no doubt that the Blue Eagles were the underdogs against the Green Archers, and indeed, La Salle swept them to win the title.
This time around, however, Ateneo has shown that it is also a force to be reckoned with, its recent struggles notwithstanding.
"We're a better team, as simple as that," Baldwin said. "We're proven a better team all year long."
"I think, apart from one big offensive lapse one period against La Salle, we've proven as good as they are," he added.
Baldwin was referring to the Blue Eagles' poor closing stretch against the Green Archers in their second round game, when they failed to score in the final two minutes and 30 seconds and lost an eight-point lead I the fourth quarter.
"They had a terrible offensive lapse in the fourth quarter of the second game, and it cost us the game. I don't expect that my team will do that again, but we have to get ourselves in a winning position first," he said.
History repeats itself?
The Blue Eagles may have felt some déjà vu after making it to the finals on Wednesday. It was virtually a replay of how they did it in Season 79: lose to FEU in the first game of the Final 4, and win in cardiac fashion in the do-or-die game to set up a title match against La Salle.
While the circumstances are the same, the team could not be any different.
"I would like to think that we've grown, we've matured a lot from last year," said Arespacochaga.
They hope to carry that growth and maturity to the finals against their archrivals, who are equally motivated to retain the crown.
"It's not going to be easy, we know that," said Arespacochaga. "But it's a very good test of character for our boys, another opportunity for them to grow."
"Even though we're up against a very strong team, we'd like to think of it as a blessing. We're going to hopefully, write our own history," he added. "Hopefully, we've learned enough lessons from the past that we'll be able to translate it into action."
Game 1 of the finals is on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.