UAAP: Ateneo will have 'underdog DNA' in latest Finals showdown vs. UP

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 08 2022 02:45 AM

The Ateneo Blue Eagles are headed to the UAAP Season 85 Finals. UAAP Media.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles are headed to the UAAP Season 85 Finals. UAAP Media.

MANILA, Philippines -- The UAAP Finals is a familiar setting for the Ateneo Blue Eagles, who have appeared in the championship stage for six consecutive seasons now. 

But Season 85 offers a new perspective for the Blue Eagles, even though they will be up against a familiar opponent in the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons. 

"I think this team has the DNA of underdogs," Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said of his Blue Eagles, after they dispatched of Adamson University, 81-60, to book their seat in the Finals.

The Fighting Maroons had earlier survived the National University Bulldogs, 69-61, to seal their own place in the best-of-3 championship series. It will be the second straight Finals meeting between the two squads; UP had stunned Ateneo in Season 84 last May to end the Blue Eagles' reign as champions. 

Baldwin's team in Season 84 was favored throughout the tournament; they won their first 13 games before faltering against UP and eventually falling against the Maroons at the final hurdle. His team now does not carry the same aura, something that the coach readily recognizes. 

"I think there was a little bit of a sense of ownership of the title [in Season 84], and we learned the very, very hard way that nobody ever owns the title," said Baldwin. "Every season, you're not a defending champion. You're a new team playing for a new championship."

"We may have lost sight of that last season, Season 84," he added. "This team certainly doesn't have that perspective."

The current crop of Blue Eagles, says Baldwin, know that they "don't have any margin of error" if they hope to return to the top of the UAAP. This showed in how they played against Adamson in the Final 4, where Ateneo ramped up the intensity in the third quarter to pull away from the Soaring Falcons. 

It's what they have to do again in the Finals against the Fighting Maroons, the coach said. 

"Maybe, resolve is the word that we're looking for," said Baldwin. "This team has a resolve to prove themselves. Because they haven't, yet, and if we're gonna win a championship, we need to."

They have a tall challenge ahead of them in a UP team that, according to Baldwin, is even better than the one that beat them in Season 84. He is especially wary of their guard rotation, which features the likes of JD Cagulangan, Gerry Abadiano, and Terrence Fortea, and now includes a rising star in Cyril Gonzales.

"[UP is] not a lot different, to be honest. Just better," said Baldwin. 

"They're really, really tough," he added. "If we can find that, then we can compete. And it's not the toughness that you need to put up with some of the physicality in the UAAP that I think is ridiculous, to be honest. It's the mental toughness to withstand the pressure that UP can put on you."

Ateneo and UP split their elimination round encounters, with the Fighting Maroons winning in the first round before the Blue Eagles got back at them in the second. 

Their win over UP was the highlight of an on-going 7-game winning streak for the Blue Eagles, but Baldwin notes that his team is "a little bit schizophrenic." As good as they are playing now, he knows that the Blue Eagles can still be prone to bad stretches on both ends of the floor. 

"If we can be a 40-minute team, there's a lot of quality basketball in this basketball team," said Baldwin. "If we execute, people will be open. We have to find them and hit shots. If we do that, I'm pretty confident our defense will show up."

"But, you know, that's why we're gonna play it -- to find out."

Game 1 of the best-of-3 series is on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

UAAP Season 85 is streaming on iWantTFC every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.