MANILA, Philippines – Even as he basked in their triumph in the UAAP Season 80 finals, Ateneo de Manila University head coach Tab Baldwin remained in awe of how well their opponents, the De La Salle University Green Archers, competed in the best-of-three series.
The defending champions pushed Ateneo to the limit in the finals. The Green Archers stunned the Blue Eagles with a remarkable 21-point comeback in Game 2, then threatened to overcome a 10-point fourth quarter deficit in Game 3.
Fortunately for Ateneo, Isaac Go knocked down a huge three-pointer that virtually sealed their victory with 24 seconds left to play. The Blue Eagles went on to win, 88-86, to claim the UAAP Season 80 championship.
Even so, Baldwin was full of praise for the Green Archers, who showed no panic in the face of another slow start and even trimmed Ateneo's lead to two points with just 48 seconds to play before Go's timely dagger.
"They never take the pressure off," Baldwin said of the Green Archers. "They're confident in their system – and that comes from Aldin (Ayo)."
"They believe in their players, they believe in their system, and they're just not gonna take their foot off your throat, for one minute," he added.
This is the quality that Baldwin admires so much in La Salle, and one that they worked so hard to prepare for in Season 80. Last year, the Blue Eagles were able to take one game off the Green Archers in the eliminations, but succumbed in two games in the finals.
This time around, Ateneo was better equipped to handle La Salle's famed "mayhem" defense – and that's because they spent so much time preparing for it.
"Our weight regimen in January through May this year was all centered on getting stronger, just so La Salle could not beat us up," Baldwin bared.
"I don't say that as a criticism of La Salle," the Kiwi-American coach was quick to add. "I say that as a compliment. We had to rise to their level. They set the bar."
"So I have to congratulate them for that."
The hard work that Ateneo put in the weight room paid off, particularly in the finals against the Green Archers. Finals MVP Thirdy Ravena came in the season all bulked up, and showed no fear in repeatedly putting his body on the line with gutsy drives to the hoop. The same could be said for Ateneo guards, including Matt Nieto who displayed his toughness in Game 1, when he came back after suffering a cut above his left eye.
But it was the Ateneo big men that reaped the dividends of their efforts. After being bullied by reigning two-time MVP Ben Mbala for most of Season 79, players like Chibueze Ikeh and Isaac Go were ready to handle the Cameroonian center this time around.
Everything came to a head on Sunday, when Ateneo simply had more in the tank against La Salle. An incredibly athletic offensive rebound by Ravena led to a booming three-pointer by Nieto, and in the very next possession, Ikeh came up with an offensive rebound of his own that led to yet another trifecta, this time by Anton Asistio.
Of course, Go hit the biggest shot of the game, making it the third time in the postseason that he had iced a victory for the Blue Eagles.
"Losing is always tough, and I'm happy that it's them, not us," said Baldwin after the game. "But there is no lack of respect and admiration for who they are, what they did to get here, and what they did today."
"They fought back again," he noted. "We had them down, and again, they fought back. You know, we had them down 10, and then they cut it to two."
That, for Baldwin, was a display of La Salle's championship heart – which they showed in full during their Game 2 comeback.
"They're champions," said the Ateneo coach. "They're still champions. You can't take that away from them."
"But now," he added, "so are we."
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