Ateneo gets big help from ‘The Buffaloes’ in winning back UAAP crown
MANILA, Philippines — Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin attributed their successful title-redemption bid to their seniors Ange Kouame, Dave Ildefonso, and BJ Andrade, role players, and “The Buffaloes” — the third stringers who served as the unsung heroes in the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament.
Six months after absorbing a heartbreaking Finals Game 3 loss to University of the Philippines at the buzzer, Ateneo made sure to avoid the same mistakes and exact sweet revenge against its rival with a wire-to-wire 75-68 victory on Monday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
It was Kouame, who dominated in the winner-take-all showdown, and the other role players stepped up to prevent the Fighting Maroons from completing unprecedented back-to-back title reigns in one year.
But Baldwin credited their success to their bench players led by Jacob Lao and Inand Fornillos, who seldomly play in Season 85 but made a huge impact by simulating every play of their opponents in practice.
“But there’s a thing in our organization now, you’ve heard of BEBOB (Blue Eagle Band of Brothers), we’ve beat that to death. But there’s this thing now called the buffaloes, and nobody knows how important the buffaloes are. A big, big chunk of this championship trophy belongs in the hands of a group of young men, that most of you probably don’t even know their names,” said Baldwin, who was soaking wet after his players doused him with water in celebration during his postgame interview.
“You can’t imagine the roles they played every day. Every day in practice. They simulated UP, they simulated Adamson. They simulated every opponent. And they didn’t even run our stuff in practice. They would dedicate themselves, and some of the coaches would dedicate themselves entirely to our opposition,” he added.
Baldwin, now a four-time UAAP champion coach, admitted this batch of Blue Eagles had to work harder than the previous versions of Ateneo teams, who were more intact with Thirdy Ravena, Mike and Matt Nieto, Isaac Go, Gian Mamuyac, and SJ Belangel.
“We never did that before. And the reason we never did that before is because we felt so powerful and so strong in what we did, that we sort of discounted our opponent, feeling like we would just roll over them,” he said. “And this year, we didn’t believe that. We tried in the beginning, but we weren’t prepared to play the teams that we played, and we suffered. And so, this was the countermeasure, and the buffaloes just got better and better and better.”
The Kiwi-American coach emphasized every member of this championship team from Finals MVP Kouame and his fellow seniors Andrade and Ildefonso to other key players Kai Ballungay, Forthsky Padrigao, Chris Koon, and Gab Gomez as well as the Buffaloes deserve every piece of the sweetest championship among their four crowns of the last five seasons.
“Never have I ever coached a championship team where it was truer that every single player and then some, on our roster, some more players outside of our roster, deserve a piece of that trophy,” Baldwin said.
“Never have I ever coached a team where I can say that more honestly. And those guys will not be heralded, they will not be lauded. So I can’t laud them enough, and I will leave it up to their great teammates, these guys, these great, great leaders, and even that was in doubt, a lot.”
Kouame shared the same sentiments as his coach, reiterating that this team is not just about him.
“It comes to the bench players, especially Jacob, Inand, and so on. Because they really give their heart during practices, and I missed a lot of practices during this season because of my knee. So, you know, props to them for making us better, and this is where we are right now, because of them,” the graduating center said. “I’m really thankful for those kinds of teammates that really gave their heart and lived their minutes out, just for them to be able to make other people better. It’s about the whole team, it’s about the buffaloes.”
Kouame has exhausted his eligibility in the UAAP, prompting the Blue Eagles to lean on a younger core for Season 86.
But the naturalized big man said never doubt what Baldwin can do for Ateneo.
“He rebuilt this team, like, for real. And I’m surprised that you guys still think about his ability to coach. He’s the best coach I ever had. Put respect on his name, man. Do you see our team? Beginning of the season, in the preseason. A lot of people were talking so much smack about our team,” said Kouame. “Look at us now, look at where we are. It’s because of him. We really appreciate everything about him, because, for us, he’s the best coach ever.”