Coach Tab Baldwin may be one of the reasons Ateneo is back in the UAAP men’s basketball finals after a three-season absence.
But the Blue Eagles mentor is quick to deflect the credit for their surprising run to the championship round where they will face rival De La Salle Green Archers.
Instead, Baldwin shared a story of the team’s boot camp over the summer in Baler in Quezon where the Eagles laid the foundation of a scintillating campaign that saw them oust 2015 champion Far Eastern University in the Final Four.
“This has been a process that we have dedicated ourselves to since we took the boys to, I don’t know what kind of camp you want to call it, a boot camp or whatever, in Baler,” Baldwin shared, moments after the Eagles survived the Tamaraws, 69-68, in overtime on Wednesday.
“We made some promises to one another, we made some commitments to one another. Since that time, I think we’ve been evolving as a basketball team.”
After an inconsistent start, the Eagles put together a six-game winning streak to clinch the No.2 seed heading into the Final Four. That run was highlighted by an 83-71 drubbing of the Green Archers last Nov. 5, which, to this point in the tournament, remains as the only blemish in La Salle’s Season 79 record.
Pushed to the limit by the Tamaraws, the Eagles kept their poise in the do-or-die clash with big man Isaac Go sparkling down the stretch with his defense.
“Obviously, we all evolved as individuals and these players have grown up a lot this year,” said Baldwin.
Go has symbolized the team’s evolution. From a seldom used, overweight big man in his rookie season, Go became a fitter and more mobile interior presence.
“Like this team, he’s (Go) just an evolving commodity and I think we’re gonna see some pretty special things from this kid in the next few years,” Baldwin said.
Loss personal for Ayo
For all of his team’s awe-inspiring performances, one game has continued to haunt La Salle coach Aldin Ayo.
Boasting of a talented crew led by Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala and Mythical Five member Jeron Teng, the Archers won all but one of their 14 games this season.
But the Archers’ aura of invincibility was destroyed by the Eagles, giving his squad extra motivation.
“On our part, we’re extra motivated because they took something from us,” said Ayo.
“I can’t forget that day. It’s the kind of loss that makes you ponder where you started with your career and how you struggled just to reach this level.”
Ayo added: “It was as if I lost everything. At La Salle, the expectations are high and with that loss, we felt we lost everything.”
So they’ll definitely go into Game 1 with the memory of that loss on top of their minds. “The beauty of having to face Ateneo is that we have a chance to redeem ourselves,” said Ayo.
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