The grind that both teams are going through. The down-to-the-wire finish. The intense atmosphere. And a title series heading to a rubber match.
For Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, these UAAP men's basketball finals against University of the Philippines is more akin to the Blue Eagles' other, more high-profile rivalry.
"I was just sitting here thinking that this finals series feels like that La Salle series. It doesn't feel like college basketball. It feels like something more [is] at stake," Baldwin said after his squad's nail-biting 69-66 victory in Game 2, which leveled the finals.
The specific La Salle clash he was referring to was the Season 80 matchup for the crown, which Ateneo won in a do-or-die.
That Green Archers team starred Ben Mbala and current Fighting Maroons guard Ricci Rivero, and was coached by Aldin Ayo.
Baldwin said UP was bringing it out the best in his team, similar to the way Ayo's La Salle did.
"I think that UP brings really, really high quality basketball to this series. Tonight, we responded. You know, we did the job in the key statistical categories," he said.
On Wednesday, the defending champions worked their way to a 15-point lead in the second half, a margin that usually meant sure victory.
But as dominant as Ateneo has been this Season 84, UP has found a way to bring its crosstown rivals to its knees.
After busting the Blue Eagles' winning streak at 39 games and coming away with a Game 1 victory, the Fighting Maroons were en route to thoroughly dismantling their championship mystique, rallying from the huge deficit and taking the lead late.
But Baldwin and co. showed their end-game poise to hold on to the victory.
With the finals leveled, Baldwin said no one on his team was celebrating.
“Heading into Game 3, we have to put everything that happened in Game 2 behind us now. We have a whole new challenge in front of us,” he explained.
“Whatever work we did, whatever sacrifices we had the last few days, we should expect to be expecting the same thing.”
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