UAAP Basketball

Ateneo responds like champions after humbling Game 1 loss

Naveen Ganglani
Ateneo responds like champions after humbling Game 1 loss

BACK ON TRACK. Ateneo looks to complete its four-peat bid after equalizing the series.


‘We had to acknowledge we weren’t good enough,’ says Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin

MANILA, Philippines – New life was brought to the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ quest for a historical fourth straight championship run following an electrifying 69-66 victory over the UP Fighting Maroons in Game 2 of the Battle of Katipunan-themed UAAP finals.

Ateneo was on the brink of elimination on Wednesday, May 11, for the first time since their 2017 finals against La Salle, the year their reign began. The Blue Eagles survived then, and they take flight another day, for now.

The key difference between Ateneo’s series-opening loss to UP from their series-tying win was late-game execution. Solving that riddle required introspection. 

The defending champions squandered an 8-point lead with 2:30 left in Game 1 and scored only 2 points the rest of the way, including overtime. Afterwards, there were questions if their lack of experience in close late-game situations was detrimental against a team that has been in a bunch of them.

Ateneo responded by scoring 9 points in the same final time frame of Game 2, per UAAP statistician Pong Ducanes. That’s despite watching another double-digit lead in the second half evaporate as the Maroons took a 57-56 lead.

This time, it didn’t last.

When Baldwin joined the media for his post-game press conference, he called the last defeat a “blessing.”

“You know, we fail in life, it happens to everybody, and I think that our team, our players, our coaches, we look at that for an opportunity to grow,” he explained.

“We had to acknowledge we weren’t good enough, and we had to acknowledge that changes [were required] mentally, physically, and all of us, and we made those changes, and it was really enough just to survive, and I really think that’s the difference in the games.”

For Baldwin and his Blue Eagles to have that humility given their impressive track record – including an undefeated run of 39 games from 2018-2022 – is impressive. 

While lamenting why his team lost to UP on Mother’s Day, Baldwin praised University of the Philippines’ completion of tasks essential to winning, such as “rebounding the heck out of the basketball.”

Ateneo outrebounded UP, 49-42, in Game 2, including 3 more offensive rebounds, and scored 16 second chance points compared to the Fighting Maroons’ 8.

Angelo Kouame, who before the game was officially awarded UAAP MVP, dominated and fortified his case for the honor with 14 points on 50% shooting, 14 rebounds, and 8 blocks. Along with Dave Ildefonso and Tyler Tio, the trio sparked the game-changing run in the second quarter, where Ateneo outscored UP, 20-12.

It was the only period where one team outscored the other by more than 5.

“I was just helping and [doing] the things I usually [do], which is play basketball and just enjoy,” the MVP said.

Dave Ildefonso, the son of former PBA MVP Danny Ildefonso, found his grove after struggling in the finals’ first five quarters, where he didn’t look like the all-around standout from the elimination round. 

He operated pick-and-rolls with Kouame to penetrate the paint, leading to baskets for him or scoring chances for the big man, who also capitalized on putbacks. 

In the final quarter, he highlighted the importance of a one-on-one star player even for a team-oriented offense by scoring on stout defender James Spencer with a nifty hop-step just as UP took momentum of the game. Later on, he used Spencer’s gamble for a steal to attack the baseline and draw free throws.

He finished with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and recorded a +8, giving a little bit of everything. 

It also figures that Ildefonso’s shooting will progress to the mean after going 4-of-13 from the field and 0-of-4 from downtown in Game 1.

“I just really asked for help, because I didn’t know what to do, and the luxury of being with coach Tab is you could always approach him, and you can always ask, and you can just put your hands up in the air, and just ask, ‘What do I do coach?’” Ildefonso described his mindset after the opener.

Ultimately, defense won Ateneo this equalizer. There were two key steals: first, by SJ Belangel, who poked the ball out of Ricci Rivero’s hands and ran for an open layup; and second, by the graduating Gian Mamuyac, who capitalized on miscommunication between Rivero and Spencer for his own breakaway deuce.

The Blue Eagles were intentional with their defense in Game 2 by dialing up the pressure on UP’s ball-handlers. The Fighting Maroons finished with 20 turnovers, yielding as many Ateneo points. 

It was a reversal from Game 1’s conclusion, where UP’s blitzing, trapping, and recovering forced empty Ateneo offensive possessions, including consecutive shot-clock violations, and leading to easy scoring opportunities for UP. 

This time around, players took turns contributing what they could for Ateneo, which is more in line with their optimal style.

“Coaches, this is a normal job for us: reviewing videos, staying up late, and talking about game plans. But the players have been more involved,” Baldwin offered rare insight into their preparations. 

“We’ve had long, long meetings with the players, and when I say long, I’m not exaggerating at all. We really talked [about] everything: we talked philosophy, we talked mentality, we talked physicality, we talked game plans, and we looked at a lot of videos. Because we made so many mistakes in Game 1, and I hope that the players believed that bore fruit in today’s game, and I feel it did.”

Ateneo and UP now enter a winner-take-all scenario. Everything is on the line. Baldwin called sacrifices his team made the last few days “significant,” and believes the next encounter on Friday will be “a whole new challenge.” 

They have their desires in sight.

As Game 2 concluded, tears streamed down the face of an emotional Tyler Tio, whose UAAP career was extended one more game. 

“Yeah, I cried, because I was relieved it wasn’t my last game yet,” he confirmed to Rappler on Thursday.

“I really want this ‘chip.” –