MANILA, Philippines – The top-seeded Ateneo Blue Eagles experienced their second bump on the road last Sunday, November 19, where the 4th-seeded Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws pulled off a shocking win to force a do-or-die match on Wednesday, November 22, 4 pm at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Katipunan-based squad failed to bounce back from their 76-79 loss to the defending champions De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers in the second elimination round game, skidding down to a two-game losing streak after Sunday's game.
One Big Flop
Before their loss to DLSU, the Blue Eagles were en route to sweeping the elimination round until the 4th quarter of the game against their archrivals. The Blue Eagles blew their 3rd quarter lead over the Green Archers in the final frame, which was punctuated by the Taft-based squad's 10-0 run.
Come the semi-finals, the FEU Tamaraws – who were once on the verge of losing the 4th seed to National University and the University of the Philippines – played the game of their lives by giving the Blue Eagles the taste of their own medicine.
The Tamaraws surprised Ateneo with incredible defense, forcing the Blue Eagles to take outside shots that gravely brought down Ateneo's field goal percentage to a mere 36.62% at the end of the game. The Blue Eagles took 17/57 jumpshots and registered a 10-of-32 shooting from the 3-point range that resulted to the lowest output of 67 points in their UAAP Season 80 campaign. FEU wrapped up the game, 80-67, to arrange the sudden-death Wednesday.
Coach Tab Baldwin and his team even gave credit to the Olsen Racela-led Tamaraws for executing their game plan very well that night.
"Tonight [November 19], FEU was a good offensive team," praised Coach Tab Baldwin.
"FEU played great. There was a different FEU in this game and we have to prepare for that. It’s going to be the same thing on Wednesday. If they’re going to play more intense, then we have to prepare ourselves," added Thirdy Ravena.
Despite the success of FEU on that night, the Blue Eagles were also at fault on their end as the Tamaraws definitely caught them on a bad day, surprising many that they weren't "themselves" during the game.
"We had open shots particularly in the first half we didn’t hit them," said Baldwin. "Then in the second half we started forcing it. I think our offense got worse 'cause we tried to force shots and I mean you just don’t see our guys shoot airballs tonight. Can’t really tell you why, we just shot the ball badly. I thought we executed well in the first half, but our big issue was our defense."
Confidence and trust
After almost finishing with a clean season, but getting bulldozed by two straight losses, it was inevitable that the players of the blue and white suffered from a lack of confidence. What was surprising, however, was that Coach Baldwin also acknowledged the resurfaced feeling of a loss and even sympathized with his players.
"I was thinking to myself: 'Gosh, I haven’t been in this mode of thinking in a long time. Like over a year.' And for our players, [it's] probably the same thing," explained Baldwin.
Despite the low morale during the second half of the game, Baldwin and his team have a strong belief that they are capable of bouncing back from the losses.
"We have to accept the humility of the scenario, we have to get back to understanding what we do well and sort of rediscover who we are and it’s there," added Baldwin.
"But today, I thought we played like a young team and we shouldn’t. Yes there is youth there but we’ve been together long enough, we shouldn’t play like a young team. "
In response to the situation, the coaches immediately conducted a meeting after Sunday's game. It ingrained in the Blue Eagles that they have to also play their part by trusting their coaches despite only having two full days of crunch time.
One of the Blue Eagles who lifted the team during this difficult game was Mike Nieto. Compared to the rest, Nieto was consistent with his shooting during the game, chipping in 13 points behind Ravena's 17-point outing.
"Nasanay na rin kami eh. Kaya yan two days," brushed off Nieto.
(We're used to it already. It's possible in two days.)
"Yung coaching staff namin actually mag-meemeeting na sila tonight and come tomorrow, we will study the things that we didn’t do well this game and be ready come Wednesday.
Proving the '13-1'
3rd year player Nieto, who is considered to be one of the leaders of the team, promises to carry what he has learned over the years of playing in seniors basketball to this tough situation they're in now.
"That’s life eh. You have to move on from a loss especially now that we’re in a tough situation in a do-or-die sa Wednesday, but you just gotta enjoy those kinds of moments. Last year, ganito rin nangyari sa amin so we’re gonna use last year’s lessons and idadala namin sa Wednesday, so we just have to enjoy it," said Nieto.
(Last year, this is what happened to us, so we're gonna use last year's lessons and bring them on Wednesday, so we have to enjoy it.)
Nieto is also confident that the Blue Eagles will get back on track to prove to everyone, especially FEU, why they are deserving of the 13-1 elimination round record.
"Ipapakita rin namin sa Wednesday bakit kami nag-13-1 record and siguro laking tulong din naman kasi we deserved 13-1 record kasi kung hindi kami nag-top 2, tanggal na kami ngayong final 4.
(We're going to show them on Wednesday why we got a 13-1 record and I guess it's a big help also that we deserved the 13-1 record because if we didn't reach top 2, then we'll be eliminated from the final 4 already.)
It has been a great run for the Blue Eagles this Season 80, but the challenge for them is to find their old selves and stay hungry for the championship that is so near yet so far.
"It’s there. And the players know that it’s there and they have a successful season to fall back on in terms of looking for confidence," said Baldwin.
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.