MANILA, Philippines—There was a good reason the Ateneo Blue Eagles were considered huge favorites in the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball finals.
The defending champions topped the elimination round with their 12-2 win-loss record, and owned the league's most efficient offense as well as the stingiest defense. The team that they faced, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, had taken an emotional road to the finals, but were massive underdogs.
Even UP coach Bo Perasol acknowledged that very few gave his team a chance to pull off an upset over the powerful Ateneo team.
"Before we came into the series, parang iniisip mo, parang paano ba tayo bubugbugin nito," he said.
"Before, wala namang nagbigay ng chance sa amin," he also said. "Parang, OK, very good, UP.' Pero wala silang sinasabi na kayang-kaya niyo si Ateneo. O kaya 'yung iba, sinasabi na, 'Kaya niyo 'yan,' pero lipservice lang 'yun."
But a relatively close 88-79 loss in Game 1 gave the Fighting Maroons a glimmer of hope. After that loss, Perasol said they realized that "we can beat Ateneo."
"They've shown that with a little tweak in defense and little rest, they can give Ateneo their money's worth," said the coach. "I'm very positive on our chances. We need some preparations, which we didn't have in the last practices."
"But I'm sure we will be better next game," Perasol predicted.
The UP coach was right. The Fighting Maroons were better in Game 2. Bright Akhuetie shrugged off a hyperextended left knee to put up 19 points and 8 rebounds. Paul Desiderio, limited to 5 points in Game 1, had 15 points and 7 boards. Juan Gomez de Liano topscored for UP with 24 points.
Yet the Fighting Maroons lost by an even bigger margin, as Ateneo won Game 2 in dominant fashion, 99-81. UP's defense simply could not keep up with the Blue Eagles, with Thirdy Ravena in particular dissecting his defenders all throughout the game.
"There's no question we lost to a better team. They were better than us," Perasol admitted afterward.
-- 'Force to be reckoned with' --
But UP didn't get to the finals by accident, and despite the large margin of defeat, the Fighting Maroons gave the Blue Eagles all that they could handle in the two-game series.
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin had nothing but praise for the Fighting Maroons after their Game 2 win, and noted that their 19-point triumph could be a little misleading.
"Sometimes, the scores were a little bit imbalanced," he said.
"You saw the season," Baldwin said. "You saw that we shut down about every team in the second round, and we made it very difficult to score."
Defense was Ateneo's calling card all throughout the year, wherein the Blue Eagles allowed opposing teams to score just 61.9 points per game on 36.4% shooting. They only gave up a total of 70 3-pointers in the elimination round for an average of 5 3-points per game.
But against an explosive UP team, even Ateneo's elite defense struggled. The Fighting Maroons lit them up for 13 3-pointers in Game 1, and in Game 2, UP still put up 81 points on 42.25% shooting.
"It was a hard time shutting these guys down," Baldwin admitted of UP.
"Putting up these points on the board, they are a force to be reckoned with," he added. "And I don't thik they are going to get any easier next year."
UP will lose five veterans, including Desiderio, the hero of their run to the finals. But the Fighting Maroons will welcome Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras, two of the most celebrated recruits that UP has had in years.
-- 'Really tough opponent' --
There is no doubt that, with Rivero and Paras in the fold, the Fighting Maroons will be considered championship contenders next year. Even Perasol knows that a final 4 appearance will no longer be enough, not with all the talent he has at his disposal.
"It's about the finals when we go back in there. And even if I say it's final 4, nobody is going to believe me now," he said.
In Season 81, however, just reaching the final 4 was already a massive achievement for the Fighting Maroons, especially given how badly they struggled to start the season. At one point, UP had a 3-5 record, and the semifinals seemed too far away to reach.
Yet the Maroons put everything together, winning five of their last six assignments to barge into the final 4 as the third seed. Once there, they continued their dream run, upsetting the second-seeded Adamson Falcons in a pair of thrillers to make it to the championship round for the first time in 32 years.
"Their season had a lot of character to it," said Baldwin. "They were a struggling team early on, they looked out of sorts. They've been in seasons like that, and as a coaching staff, it's really, really difficult."
"So you scratch your head all the time and you say: 'We got talent, we got some good players, and how do we pull this thing together?'" he added.
Baldwin lauded the UP coaching staff for figuring things out midway through the season, and getting everybody on the same page.
"They put together a great season," he said. "Yes, there's only one champion, but there are two teams that play the last game of the season. So the one that doesn't win must've done a lot of things pretty well."
"I think that you got to give credit to every single one of them. The coaches obviously did a good job and the players worked with the coaches so they deserve credit for that. They were a really tough opponent."
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