MANILA, Philippines -- Ahead of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball finals, there were concerns that the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles would be "rusty" after a 16-day break.
The defending champions last played on October 30, when they dismantled University of the Philippines (UP) to complete a sweep of the elimination round. That put them into the finals outright, and the Blue Eagles had to wait while University of Santo Tomas (UST), Far Eastern University (FEU), and UP batted for the other finals spot.
FEU was the first team out, eliminated by UST in the first phase of the stepladder semifinals. The Growling Tigers went on to take down the Fighting Maroons, overcoming a twice-to-beat disadvantage for their first championship appearance since 2015.
Having won three straight knockout games, UST had all the momentum heading into Saturday's Game 1.
It took Ateneo just five minutes, however, to dispel any concerns about rust, or lack of momentum, or lack of rhythm. Thirdy Ravena sparked an 18-2 start for the Blue Eagles, and Ateneo went on to lead by as much as 23 points en route to a 91-77 triumph in Game 1.
"People thought that was a resting day, for 16 days," Ateneo big man Ange Kouame said after the game. "But we had practice basically every single day."
"We were prepared coming to the game and be ready to go," he added.
There were no signs of rustiness in the Blue Eagles. Instead, they were locked in defensively and on point offensively. Only a 26-point outburst from UST point guard Mark Nonoy kept the Tigers in the game, but for the most part the Blue Eagles were prepared and ready for anything that the España cagers tried.
This was no accident. As Kouame noted, they prepared every day from the moment they swept UP until they faced off against UST in the finals opener.
"Mas intense 'yung practice," said Ravena, who finished with a season-high 32 points in the win. "Mas takbuhan, mas physical siya eh."
"Kailangan mo talagang mag-exert ng effort sa practice kasi hindi pwede mawala 'yung rhythm mo sa game, hindi puwedeng ma — sinabi nga ni Coach Tab (Badwin) — maging rusty," he added.
"So, talagang hindi biro 'yung ginawa namin doon sa 17 days na 'yun."
Baldwin, who is looking to steer Ateneo to a third straight men's title, has heard all the worries about rustiness and lack of rhythm that may crop up because of their 16-day break. But for the coach, those worries were unfounded.
"I always thought the big break was an advantage, not a disadvantage," he said.
"I'm a big believer in preparation. I think if you give me as a coach more preparation time, that’s gonna be an advantage for our basketball team," he added. "We never bought into the stuff about a long layoff makes you rusty and things like that."
For Baldwin, rustiness comes with inactivity. The Blue Eagles, he said, were far from inactive during their 16-day gap between games.
"Working makes you not rusty. And we worked. We worked hard," he stressed.
A lot of work went into their conditioning, as Baldwin felt the Blue Eagles were "not fit enough" after the elimination round. The running and sprinting that they did proved useful when they found out they were going up against a fast-paced UST team in the finals.
The work, however, is far from done for Ateneo. They have just three days in between Games 1 and 2, and now UST head coach Aldin Ayo has gotten a peek at the schemes that they worked on during their long break.
"All (our work has) done is get us to the next game," Baldwin noted.
"We’ll have to see, we’ll have to see if UST makes adjustments in the next game," he added. "For us, we have to do the things that we believe we can do well. We also have to find what are opponent is giving us or what they’re trying to take away. We have to react to that."
"There are no questions adjustments will be made. We’ll have to try and anticipate some of those and make adjustments ourselves."
Game 2 is on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
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