Ateneo de Manila University’s climb to the throne started when De La Salle University swept the Blue Eagles last season, coach Tab Baldwin’s first year with the Loyola-based squad.
A five-month weight program, that started in January, readied Ateneo not to be beaten again by Ben Mbala and the Green Archers, who were the yardsticks after ruling Season 79 of University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball competition.
Baldwin ‘crucified’ the players in a camp in Baler just to regain that sense of pride of playing for the school and be ready to face adversity as the season progresses.
On Sunday, Baldwin and the Ateneo basketball team reaped the dividends of months of hardwork and sacrifices after getting back on their chief rivals in the winner-take-all Game 3, 88-86, in front of more than 22,000 fans who filled the Araneta Coliseum.
The Blue Eagles are once again kings of the UAAP, the school’s ninth overall but first since 2012, the final year of the five-peat run under coach Norman Black.
And Baldwin was the happiest person on that day as he witnessed the efforts and sacrifices the players put up just to get back to the top anew.
“These boys worked a long time, you know, to get there. I told them, ‘We didn’t reach a peak, we reached a plateau, because there has to be room for the whole team.’ We didn’t do it as individuals, we did is as team,” said Baldwin.
“They stand there as a team, and they’re standing proud of what they’ve accomplished and they’re standing proud as Ateneans. And I’m very, very proud to be part of that,” the American mentor added.
The Blue Eagles had a perfect start in Season, winning their first 13 games of Season 80 before it was halted by the Green Archers in the final day of the elimination that denied them of automatic entry in the finals.
Far Eastern University (FEU) pushed them to the limit in the Final Four stage and in fact a defensive stop away of ruining Ateneo’s magical run.
But Isaac Go, the Blue Eagles’ gentle giant who hit a crucial triple in Game 3 against La Salle, saved them from catastrophe with clutch baskets in their knockout semifinal game to set up a rematch with the boys from Taft.
And the thrilling finish last Sunday culminated Ateneo’s long journey to the top with Go again making an important shot that defined the team’s character.
“Everybody thinks I’m clutch because I’m making shots at that moment. But without the execution of the coaching staff, without their brains, and without the recognition of my teammates, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the shot in the first place,” said Go.
“So, if you call me clutch, it’s better to say the team is clutch,” the third-year center added.
It was Thirdy Ravena, the Finals Most Valuable Player, who set up that three-point basket of Go after La Salle chopped Ateneo’s 10-point lead to just two, 80-82, under a minute left in the contest.
“It was not a spectacular play. It was just the instructions of the coaches. It’s just us doing our jobs, doing our abilities, trying to recognize everything in that specific moment,” said Ravena.
Baldwin was right. The Blue Eagles’s defeat to the Green Archers last year exposed their weak character and lack of mental toughness in the finals.
Ateneo definitely learned from that stumble. And when given another opportunity to face La Salle in the finals, the Blue Eagles knew already what to do.
“They just responded every step of the way and when we ran into really adversity, none bigger that tremendous La Salle basketball team, they found a way. And a lot of it is their heart, soul and courage,” Baldwin ended.