MANILA, Philippines – In a way, Ateneo de Manila University coach Tab Baldwin was not too surprised to see his Blue Eagles squander what seemed like an insurmountable lead against the De La Salle Green Archers in Game 2 of the UAAP Season 80 Finals.
Needing just one more win to secure their first UAAP title in five years, the Blue Eagles came out on fire against La Salle in Game 2, hitting five three-pointers in the first period. They would lead by as much as 21 points in the second quarter, and appeared to have the defending champions on the ropes.
Yet Baldwin knew that their seemingly comfortable advantage was a mirage, especially in the Finals.
"Big leads, especially in the first half, scare the hell out of me," Baldwin admitted after the game.
The Kiwi-American coach's fear came true, as their 21-point cushion would not be enough. The usually steady Blue Eagles sputtered against La Salle's increasingly physical defense in the second half, and fell apart on defense as the Green Archers began to assert themselves.
Instead of celebrating a title, Ateneo bowed to La Salle, 92-83, and will play the defending champions again on Sunday – this time in a do-or-die Game 3.
"We had a big lead, and I'm a coach that hates big leads," Baldwin later explained. "That may sound ironic, but in today's world, I think young people don't have a killer instinct."
"I see it over and over and over in basketball leagues all over the world – big leads just seem to drain," he added. "Momentum swings the other way."
The momentum began swinging La Salle's way toward the end of the second quarter, when a Ben Mbala slam-dunk touched off a 10-0 run for the Green Archers.
In the span of just two minutes, Ateneo's lead was down to single digits, 51-42; La Salle completed their comeback when they held the Blue Eagles to only eight points in the pivotal third quarter of the game.
"It's always tough to swing momentum back," said Baldwin. "We suffered from that today."
"La Salle did a great job of finding their feet after we had a great start," he also acknowledged. "Once they found their feet, we lost ours."
"And we couldn't really have it back."
Baldwin commended the adjustments that La Salle coach Aldin Ayo made, particularly his decision to go with a smaller line-up that changed the pace of the game in La Salle's favor and allowed the Green Archers to fully implement the "mayhem" style that they are so good at.
"Their pressure started to take a toll, and momentum swung. We just didn't play as well, once the momentum swung," he said.
There is no denying that the loss was a painful one for Ateneo. They had La Salle scrambling for answers, but instead of going for the kill, they eased up just a little bit – and that was all the opening that the Green Archers needed to make their rally.
Now, the Blue Eagles will have to play a do-or-die game for the second time in two weeks. Baldwin vows that his players will be prepared on Sunday, when they try to get the job done.
"The mentality has changed already," Baldwin said of his players. "We get rid of that loss in the locker room after the game. We move on. We have Game 3."
"That's all we think about," he stressed. "We don't think about Game 2. La Salle did not think about Game 1, and they came out and played."
"We won't think about Game 2. It's winner-takes-all now."
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