MANILA, Philippines – Four years since they arrived in the UAAP as coaches, Tab Baldwin and Aldin Ayo continue to push and challenge each other, and their relationship has grown into one of mutual respect and admiration.
Ayo got the better of Baldwin, the former Gilas Pilipinas head coach, all the way back in Season 79 when he steered De La Salle University to a dominant campaign – one that was capped by a sweep of Ateneo de Manila University in the finals.
But Baldwin got him back in Season 80, when it was his turn to lead the Blue Eagles past the Green Archers in a thrilling three-game finals series. Ayo left for University of Santo Tomas (UST) after that season, and Baldwin and the Blue Eagles dominated their match-up in Season 81 en route to another crown.
They added another chapter to their rivalry on Wednesday, when Ayo's Growling Tigers gave the Blue Eagles their toughest test of Season 82 to date. The young UST squad pushed the defending champions to the limit, and Ateneo needed some spectacular defense in the endgame to pull off a 71-70 triumph.
Afterward, Baldwin acknowledged that they were "fortunate" to have taken the victory, while also commending Ayo for a game well coached.
"This is gonna make us, I believe, a lot better basketball team. Because Aldin's team has a way of doing that," Baldwin explained. "They have a way of finding your weaknesses."
"I've coached against him enough to know that after you play him, there's a lot of patchwork to be done on the things that he exposes, his team," he added.
Ayo's squad showed no fear against the two-time defending champions, with Beninese center Soulemane Chabi Yo, in particular, having his way against the Ateneo frontline. They led at the half and at the end of the third quarter, but the Blue Eagles caught up behind some inspired play from Ange Kouame and Thirdy Ravena in crunch time.
It was UST's first defeat of the season after back-to-back victories, and Baldwin could only tip his hat to Ayo after the young coach got the Tigers back on track to Final 4 contention. Last year, in Ayo's first season in charge, UST mustered a 5-9 win-loss record and missed out on the semifinals.
"I just have so much respect for him, and the way he does his job," Baldwin said of Ayo, who burst into the scene as the head coach of Colegio de San Juan de Letran before making a much-publicized jump to La Salle. "He's a blessing for Philippine basketball, for the UAAP."
The two exchanged some words after the game, and Ayo revealed that Baldwin told him: "I told you, it's going to be fun."
"I told him, 'Well, good game coach.' Nothing but respect to Coach Tab," added Ayo.
As much as Baldwin commended him, Ayo was equally effusive in his praise for the coach, who handled the Philippine national team in 2015 and 2016.
"He (Baldwin) made the UAAP better. He raised the level of competition, he made the players better, not only his players, but the other players," said Ayo. "He made the coaches better."
While Baldwin relished playing against Ayo as a way of testing his own squad, the younger coach simply welcomed the challenge of matching wits against such an accomplished tactician.
"I love the challenge, and ako, nago-grow din a ko because of him, and siguro ko, sila din, ganoon din," said Ayo. "That's the good thing about competition eh, especially sportsmanship."
"You handle it well, you take it well, then everybody benefits from it."
Baldwin leads their coaching head-to-head record, 7-5.
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