COACH Tab Baldwin of defending two-time champion Ateneo and University of Santo Tomas counterpart Aldin Ayo have battled each other in the Big Dance twice, with Ayo, then calling the shots for La Salle, wining in 2016.
The following year, Baldwin got back at Ayo as the Blue Eagles beat the Green Archers in the title duel and ended a five-year title drought.
Baldwin knows Ayo has numerous aces up his sleeves and that explains why he refused to count the Growling Tigers out despite their runaway 91-77 triumph in Game 1 of their best-of-three battle for the 82nd UAAP crown.
“We know we’re in for a really tough game on Wednesday. The one thing we’ve been talking about since we knew UST was our opponent was that teams that Aldin (Ayo) coaches, they don’t ever quit, they don’t ever back down. While the next game is the second half for us, it’s Game 2 for them,” said Baldwin.
“Well, it’s good to get the win obviously. But we tend to not really see that as a win. We see that as the first half of basketball and we just get a long halftime break. We get to prepare for the second half, which will be in your eyes, Game 2. A lot to work on,” he added.
The win, the Eagles’ 14th straight after a 14-0 elimination round sweep, enabled them to move within a victory of a three-peat and their 11th title overall.
Ateneo is also bidding to become only the fourth school and only the seventh team in UAAP history to win the title unbeaten.
The Eagles have not swept a season, not even during their historic five-year reign under coach Norman Black from 2008 to 2012.
Baldwin insisted his charges should not keep their feet off the pedal to close out the series.
“I told our guys before the game that I think this is a must-win game for us. I don’t see Wednesday’s game any different. I think it’s a must-win game for us (Game 2). We need to have the attitude that it is a must-win game,” said Baldwin.
“And you know, we’ll see how easy it is to develop that attitude going into that game. But nothing but praise for both teams. But we need to play better defense to be the team that we want to be.”
In front of an SRO crowd of 19,176 fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, forward Thirdy Ravena shone anew for Ateneo with a season-best 32 points to go with five rebounds and three assists while 6-foot-10 Angelo Kouame of Ivory Coast notched a double-double of 18 markers and 12 boards, and five dimes.
SJ Belangel went 4-of-8 from deep and also finished with 12 points for the Eagles, who came off a 16-day break after their 86-64 drubbing of University of the Philippines last Oct. 30.
The Tigers survived three straight knockout matches in the stepladder semifinals, counting their pulsating 68-65 decision over the Fighting Maroons last Nov. 13 to reach the finals.
Rookie of the Year Mark Nonoy led UST with a career-high 26 points, while Brent Paraiso and MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo added 14 and 13, respectively.