MANILA, Philippines—As he celebrated another UAAP men's basketball title, Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin spared a thought for his rival, University of Santo Tomas coach Aldin Ayo.
Baldwin and Ayo have matched wits in three of the past UAAP finals, with Ayo steering La Salle past the Blue Eagles in Season 79. Baldwin got him back in Season 80, as Ateneo dethroned the Green Archers in what turned out to be Ayo's final year at Taft.
Ayo left for UST after 2017, and the Tigers endured a rebuilding year in 2018 while Baldwin led the Blue Eagles to another UAAP title. This year, however, the Growling Tigers surprised everyone by making a run to the Season 82 Finals, where they challenged a dominant Ateneo team that had won all 14 of their games in the elimination round.
The Growling Tigers put up a challenge, particularly in the second game of the series. After being routed, 91-77, in Game 1, UST kept it close in Game 2, even coming to within one point in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the España cagers, Ateneo had too many options and too much firepower, pulling away late, and holding on for an 86-79 victory.
"It's very difficult in defeat," Baldwin acknowledged after the game. "I've been there plenty of times in my life."
"The players and coaching staff of UST . . . They don't wanna hear a lot right now. They’re hurting," he added. "But I want it on the record of saying that the fight that they showed in this finals, I think it really flattered us."
"I think what they gave out there on the court, what they had to give, really flatters us. I appreciate all of them. I respect them also, much they know that, I’ve told them that."
UST, more than any other team in the UAAP this year, had given Ateneo fits. The Blue Eagles escaped with a 71-70 victory in their first meeting, before earning a 66-52 triumph in their second round encounter.
A well-rested and well-prepared Ateneo team crushed UST in the first game of the finals, but the Tigers refused to go down easily in Game 2. UST never let Ateneo take complete control of the contest, rallying despite falling behind by 16 points in the first quarter.
They fell short in the end, and the Tigers can gain some comfort in knowing that they lost their games to Ateneo by an average of just nine points per game. The Blue Eagles' average winning margin this season was 16.5 points.
"It wasn't easy," said Baldwin. "It was extremely difficult, and I think I've said enough times — Aldin and his team, they come at you hard. I think if you take it lightly, you lose. Simple as that."
"And we didn’t take them lightly. We prepared extremely hard," he added. "I'll leave it up to all of you to decide the fairness of the outcome but Aldin and his team fight hard."
"They are a good basketball team. They have a lot of weapons on that team. It was a battle. We thought it would be a battle and we’re just very pleased to come out as victors in the battle."
Baldwin was effusive in his praise of Ayo, noting that his teams are "really outstanding." He commended their toughness both physically and tactically, and pointed out that the Tigers have one thing that separates them from the rest of the pack when it comes to challenging Ateneo.
"They're probably the one team that tries to impose themselves on us," said Baldwin. "I think most of the other teams were trying to defend themselves from us imposing ourselves on them, particularly our defense."
Ayo's team, instead, "comes out to attack." "He makes no concessions to anything we might have achieved coming into the game," said Baldwin.
"You can tell that the team was not beaten when they came out to play today," he also said.
The final minute of the game typified the kind of fight that Baldwin has come to expect from UST this season. Ateneo was already ahead, 86-76, with 62 seconds to go after a layup by eventual finals MVP Thirdy Ravena.
Yet the Growling Tigers never stopped pressing. They forced consecutive turnovers against the Blue Eagles, and Rhenz Abando drew fouls against Adrian Wong and Thirdy Ravena to earn trips to the line. He made three of four charities for an 86-79 count with 34.2 ticks left, and UST got another stop when Wong was called for a five-second holding violation.
Their rally would fall short; the Blue Eagles' advantage was too big at that point. Yet the Growling Tigers' effort was not lost on their opponents, who praised them as worthy rivals afterward.
"We certainly know what kind of team they’ll be next year. They’re gonna be extremely difficult, extremely strong basketball team. Congratulations to them and I wish them well in the future," said Baldwin.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.