MANILA, Philippines – Losing has become a thoroughly unfamiliar feeling for the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles.
They won their first 13 games of the UAAP Season 80 elimination round, a run of success that included an impressive victory over archrival De La Salle University, the defending champion.
But their aura of invincibility was shattered last week, when the Green Archers got back at them in their final elimination round game. Ateneo squandered a double-digit lead in that contest, and was outplayed by La Salle in crunch time.
The question, following that result, was how Ateneo would respond to their first loss. Their coach, Tab Baldwin, was still upbeat: a sweep of the elimination round, after all, had never been the goal for the Blue Eagles. Moreover, they still had the No. 1 seed and a twice-to-beat edge in the Final Four.
Well, that twice-to-beat edge is now gone, too. Ateneo followed up their first loss of the season with another – bowing to Far Eastern University, 80-67, in the Final Four on Sunday.
"I told the team at halftime – have you guys realized that we're on a one-game losing streak?" Baldwin revealed to reporters after the loss. "Now, it's a two-game losing streak."
"And I think there is something there," he added.
Baldwin admitted that the pair of losses felt somewhat strange, even to him, especially after all the success that they had earlier in UAAP Season 80.
"I can feel it myself, as a coach. Out there, late in the second half, when I knew we were not gonna come back and win that game, I was thinking to myself, 'Gosh, I haven't been in this mode of thinking for a long time, you know, over a year,'" he said.
The Blue Eagles, said Baldwin, probably felt the same way as well.
But the well-traveled coach stressed that Ateneo does not have any other recourse but bounce back, especially as they are in a must-win situation heading to Wednesday's game against the Tamaraws.
"We have to accept the humility of the scenario," he explained. "We have to get back to understanding what we do well, and sort of rediscover who we are."
"It's still there," he added. "There is no question that it's still there."
"But I thought today, we played like a young team, and we shouldn't. Yes – there's youth there, but we've been together long enough, and we shouldn't play like a young team. We have to figure it out."
Chief among the puzzles for Baldwin is the surprising lack of pep in Ateneo's defense. The Blue Eagles put together the second-ranked defense in the UAAP during the elimination round, but the Tamaraws scorched them on Sunday, shooting 49.21%.
"Their (FEU's) confidence was really great," he noted. "If you look at the stats, almost all of their shots were contested field goal attempts. But I don't think our contests had any sort of vigor to them."
"Our defense seemed to lack the last 10% of effort that it needs to have an impact on a good offensive team, and tonight FEU was a good offensive team," he added.
"Forget the regular season, whatever it means. This is playoff basketball, and they were sharper on both ends. I have to figure out why we weren't."
Their inability to put together stops on defense ultimately affected their offense, said the coach.
In the first half, Ateneo was moving the ball around the way they usually did; only this time, their shots were not falling as they were used to. Come the second half, the Blue Eagles were starting to force the issue; they took 17 triples in the third and fourth quarters, and made only three.
Baldwin has only a couple of days to figure out a way to break an incredibly untimely losing streak by the Blue Eagles, and the Kiwi-American coach is up for the challenge.
"For me, it's really just back to the drawing board," he said. "We have to take a good hard look at FEU's schemes."
"I think we knew what they were. I think we were prepared for their schemes, and that's why I think we got good shots early. We just didn't hit 'em," he added.
"And when your defense isn't doing its job on the other end of the floor, that probably gets into your head a little bit too on the offensive end. We just have to play a lot better, and play much closer to what we're capable of."
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