The Ateneo Blue Eagles almost completed an elimination round sweep but the De La Salle Green Archers made sure to deny their archrivals the luxury of heading straight to the finals unscathed.
On Sunday, the Blue Eagles absorbed their first loss as the defending champions notched a come-from-behind 79-76 victory.
“It would have been nice to have, but that’s it. It would have been nice,” said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin on their botched 14-0 run. “We still have to win the title. So now we just have a different route to try and do what we really wanna do. Things like sweeps and undefeated seasons are things you dream about, but you got to leave them behind pretty quick.”
The top-seeded team’s immaculate record prior to the much-awaited rivalry game can be attributed to their incredible discipline and composure down the stretch. Even in those moments when they were trailing or on the verge of losing their lead, they never panicked and just concentrated on their next possession.
For 13 consecutive matches, they prevented any endgame meltdown from happening. They won their first round battle against the Green Archers precisely because they stayed true to their identity until the buzzer sounded. However, they weren’t as successful in their second round matchup.
Baldwin admitted that his players were not able to display their usual brand of basketball in the final frame.
“I think that we didn’t react well when they changed defenses in the fourth quarter,” he said. “The fourth quarter, (La Salle) owned it. That’s a big disappointment for us. That’s been a quarter we’ve done well in this year.”
The head coach also did not like what he saw from the boys in the first half. He told them during the break that they did not deserve to win because of how they were playing. The Blue Eagles took that as a challenge and came out of the locker room with more intensity.
“What we demonstrated in the third quarter was that we played solid, humble basketball after being poor in the first half. I thought we played really well, I thought we put ourselves in a great position to win the game,” he said. “We re-discovered who we were but then again, in the fourth quarter, you got to give credit to La Salle’s energy, effort, defensive changes, and our foul trouble. We just could not overcome that.”
The Green Archers completely shifted the momentum down the stretch to steal the win. They dropped ten markers in the last two minutes and 24 seconds, while clamping down on defense and holding Ateneo scoreless.
Down by a single point in the dying seconds, the Blue Eagles had the opportunity to regain the lead. Isaac Go found himself wide open near the basket, but with reigning MVP Ben Mbala in front of him, he hesitated for a split second. It could have been a beautiful game-winning moment but he ended up flubbing the shot.
Despite the crucial miss, Baldwin still commended Go and the rest of his wards for executing the play well. “He actually wasn’t the first option in that play but he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I think it was a great inbounds pass from Anton (Asistio) to find him because we were really looking someplace different.”
Go was visibly upset after he made the endgame blunder but Baldwin quickly dismissed it. He knew how difficult it was to put up a shot against Mbala, and he knew his third-year big man did the best he could in the critical situation.
“I think George made the right play. I think instead of going straight up with it where Ben has been blocking shots when guys did that, he shot faked. So then he had a contested shot, but I think he made the right shot and he just missed it. So what? We’ve missed a lot of shots.”
Talk about perspective. It was just one missed shot, in the same way that it was just one loss amidst the Blue Eagles’ impressive season. Indeed, a sweep would have been nice, but the ultimate goal of bagging the championship is still pretty much within their reach.
As they prepare for their Final Four matchup with FEU, Baldwin believes they just have to do what they have been doing throughout the year – focus on the next game.
“The golden apple that we’re after is still in front of us. So you know, what really matters is the next game,” he said. “I don’t have doubts about our players’ mentality. We understand the importance of being ready for the next game. That’s not gonna change. We’ve set that template, we’ve adhered to it all year long. We’re not gonna stray from that now.”