MANILA, Philippines -- For the first time since December 2018, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are facing a must-win situation in a UAAP tournament.
The Blue Eagles will have their backs against the wall when they play the University of the Philippines in Game 2 of the UAAP Season 84 Finals on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena. It marks the first time since Game 3 of the UAAP Season 80 Finals that Ateneo was in a do-or-die affair.
Back then, the Blue Eagles had beaten De La Salle University in Game 1 before squandering a big lead in Game 2. They pulled out the victory in the third game, on the strength of a dagger three-pointer by Isaac Go.
But this situation is different: Ateneo has to beat the Fighting Maroons just to force yet another do-or-die game. The Blue Eagles, right now, are feeling like "fish out of water," according to their own coach, Tab Baldwin.
"These are guys that have their pedigree as winning basketball games, not losing basketball games," said Baldwin after Ateneo squandered a late advantage and lost 81-74 to UP in overtime of Game 1 last Sunday.
"They're a bit fish out of water right now," he admitted. "They have to learn the lessons from losing."
Ateneo won 39 consecutive games before losing to UP in their final elimination round game last May 1. They rebounded from that by crushing Far Eastern University in the Final 4, but were shocked again by the Fighting Maroons in the Finals opener.
Baldwin, who has never lost to the same team three straight times since he took over as Ateneo coach, said that the mood in their locker room was "pretty solemn" after Game 1.
"There's not a lot of conversation going on. There is talk that you know, hey this is just Game 1 and we have to win two, and we're still in it, and that is important, and it's true," he noted.
Baldwin gave credit to the Fighting Maroons for how they came back in the game, acknowledging that UP disrupted their offense. In overtime, Ateneo committed a shot-clock violation three times, and scored just four points.
Yet Baldwin also points out that they could have won in regulation, had they just given a bit more effort on the boards and taken care of the ball better. He also bemoaned their free throw shooting: Ateneo made just 11 of 25 charities in the loss.
"I'm not really sure that you deserve to win it when you allow your opposition 50% offensive rebounding percentage, when you give them 26 turnovers that they turn into 26 turnovers points. And you shoot, what, 11 from 25 from the free throw line," he said.
"It's almost like you're trying to lose when those numbers are present on the score sheet. Certainly, there were some good numbers on the score sheet in our favor, but you know, that's not indicative of the way that we normally play," he said.
Those are some of the issues that Ateneo will have to address -- and quickly -- if they hope to play in a second do-or-die game in Season 84. The Blue Eagles have already rebounded from a loss once in the tournament, and Baldwin remains confident that they can do it again.
"We intend to get back to playing the way that we should play," he said. "We believe that we can turn the results around."
"It's a 3-game series for a reason, so we intend to work our tails off and get this thing to a third game and do the very best we can to win the championship," he added.