By Jerome Lagunzad
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin can’t help being worried after the top seeded Blue Eagles fell to the fourth-ranked Far Eastern Tamaraws in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 80 Final Four last Sunday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
“I think there is something there. I think the team… I can feel it myself as a coach,” Baldwin said after twice-to-beat Ateneo’s 82-75 setback.
The stunning loss was the team’s second consecutive following a 79-76 defeat to defending champion De La Salle, which denied Ateneo an outright slot to the finals and set up the normal semifinal stage instead of a step-ladder setup.
The latter loss resulted in a knockout encounter with the Tams tomorrow at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
The winner will face the Green Archers in the best-of-three finals. No. 2 La Salle, also armed with a twice-to-beat bonus, eliminated No. 3 Adamson in the other semis, 82-75, last Saturday.
Ateneo just couldn’t get any headway after the halftime break when veteran-laden FEU started to take control in the third canto before pouring it all in the final frame and leading by as many as 17 points, 75-58, with three minutes left.
“Out there, late in the second half when I knew we weren’t gonna come back and win that game, I was thinking to myself, ‘Gosh! I haven’t been in this mode of thinking in a long time.’ You know, over a year,” admitted Baldwin.
Even as they groped for form against the Tamaraws’ switching defense that forced them out of their comfort zones, the Blue Eagles apparently failed to muster the resolve to overcome Ateneo’s aggressiveness in the second half.
“Today I thought we played like a young team,” said Baldwin. “And we shouldn’t (play that way). Yes, there’s youth there, but we’ve been together long enough and we shouldn’t play like a young team. We have to figure it out.”
“I think our offense got worse because we tried to force shots. We shot airballs tonight. Can’t really tell you why. We just shot the ball badly. I thought we executed well in the first half, but the big issue was our defense.”
In contrast, FEU mentor Olsen Racela sounded satisfied with how undersized big man Richard Escoto provided the energy in crashing the boards, hauling down five offensive rebounds, to complement Ron Dennison and former Ateneo stalwart Hubert Cani.