MANILA, Philippines—Regardless of who they faced in the UAAP Season 81 finals, the Ateneo Blue Eagles would have been favorites thanks to their depth, championship experience, and refined system.
This does not mean that they do not have a preference regarding their opponent, however.
Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin acknowledged after Game 1 of the Season 81 Finals that they were wary of facing the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons for the championship.
"Now, I could say it," Baldwin said after Ateneo pulled off an 88-79 win over UP in the first game of the best-of-3 series.
"We really didn't want them (UP) in the final, but that's what we got so that's what we have to face."
The Blue Eagles had swept UP in the eliminations, winning 87-79 in the first round, then taking an even more dominant 83-66 triumph in the second. The Fighting Maroons had not beaten Ateneo since Season 79, when they hacked out a 56-52 upset of the Blue Eagles in the second round.
Yet Baldwin pointed out that the UP team that entered the finals is vastly different from the one that they routed on October 14.
The Fighting Maroons went through the wringer just to make it to the best-of-3 championship round. They played virtual must-win games against University of Santo Tomas and La Salle to end the eliminations, then overcame the twice-to-beat Adamson Falcons in the final 4.
"(UP is) much more determined, much more cohesive," Baldwin said.
"They understand their personnel, they understand how to create shots much better and they play for one another. It’s quite obvious. So that always makes a team tougher.
"It's something I think that probably coach Bo (Perasol) was working on throughout the season and I think he's got it pretty close to right."
Still riding the momentum of their emotional triumph over Adamson in the semifinals, the Fighting Maroons took the fight to Ateneo in Game 1, and went toe-to-toe with the defending champions in the first three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, however, they fell prey to Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena, who conspired to give the Blue Eagles a 14-point cushion with two minutes left. Nieto finished with a career-best 27 points, and Ravena was one assist shy of a triple-double.
"Tough game, tough game," Baldwin said. "And I think the outcome was in doubt, probably up until the last couple of minutes."
The coach said he was impressed with UP's performance in Game 1, but also lauded his team for getting the job done.
"Certainly, I was proud of the fact that we stuck to the task, and we got to the finish line for the first half because this is only a half," he said.
"We can't expect anything less on Wednesday from them," Baldwin further warned. "We have to expect a lot more from our defense on Wednesday."
Game 2 is set for Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.
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