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How Tab Baldwin rebuilt Ateneo into another title-winning team

Not even Tab Baldwin really believed that Ateneo had a chance to upset UP this season. UAAP Media Bureau

From 2017 to early 2022, the Ateneo Blue Eagles were a well-oiled juggernaut that just knew it can beat anybody and everybody.

Anybody and everybody knew that, too.

Just look at just some of the names the blue-and-white paraded during that time: Thirdy Ravena. Mike and Matt Nieto. Isaac Go. William Navarro. Gian Mamuyac. SJ Belangel. Tyler Tio. Ange Kouame. Dave Ildefonso.

By late 2022, though, that was no longer the case. Ateneo still had pieces of the puzzle. It still had Tab Baldwin, the best collegiate coach, and perhaps, best coach in any level in Philippine basketball.

But the most talented team, hands down? The team that can do it all to win it all? It had to be the UP Fighting Maroons in UAAP Season 85.

For the first time in a long time, the Blue Eagles weren't the kings, as the crown sat on the heads of the Fighting Maroons. State U was the defending champion that put an end to Ateneo's three-season reign.

"There were a lot of things that happened this year that kind of flew below the radar, and they really made this championship one that was against all odds," Baldwin said. "UP was so good, the defending champions, and they came back with virtually an intact roster. And when you've got defending champions with, pretty much, an intact roster, they're hard to knock off."

The story was the same in the two teams' first meeting in the first round of Season 85. UP downed Ateneo, 76-71. At times Baldwin's wards were even third behind the resurgent NU Bulldogs.

Something had to be done.

"We did things that we've never done. The use of, we call them, 'the buffaloes.' They're on the roster, but you can't imagine the roles they played every day," Baldwin said. "Every day in practice, they simulated every opponent. They'd dedicate themselves entirely to our opposition. We never did that before."

Baldwin was referring to his third group in the lineup as well as reserves such as Jacob Lao, Inand Fornilos, JC Fetalvero. They didn't play much during games but played a key role in preparation.

"The reason we never did that before is because we felt so powerful and so strong that we sort of discounted our opponent, feeling like we'd just roll over them. This year, we didn't believe that," he furthered. "We tried in the beginning, but we weren't prepared to play teams that we played and we suffered. (The 'buffaloes') were the counter-measure."

Since falling to 5-3, the Blue Eagles went on a six-win tear to end the eliminations. With that, they edged out the mostly intact defending champion Fighting Maroons and earned the top-seed.

Then in the Final Four, they put Jerom Lastimosa, the best collegiate point guard, in a stranglehold for just 10 points in 4-of-15 shooting before tightening the noose on the rest of the Adamson Soaring Falcons.

The preparedness, without a doubt, showed. Ateneo was more certain in its offensive execution, more disciplined in its defensive scheme, harder in competition, faster to the ball, and stronger during contact.

"A big, big chunk of this championship belongs in the hands of a group that most of you don't even probably know. Unfortunately in team sports, that's what happens," Baldwin said. "But never have I ever coached a champion team where it was truer that every single player -- and then some -- deserved a piece of that trophy."

Come the finals, Ateneo fell short of finding a way in Game 1. UP's talent just came through. In Games 2 and 3, Ateneo outplayed UP, for a comfortable average winning margin of 8.5 points, They outworked them, too, only surrendering nine open shots while suffocating their foes to a 30.5% clip in guarded attempts. And let's put outhustled in there, as well, as they had 18 steals to their opponents' 12, and 12 blocks compared to eight.

The Fighting Maroons were more talented. The Blue Eagles had more intensity. That's the simple explanation to this most unexpected of titles under Baldwin.

"I don't want to say it was a surprise, but I think this this team had to work harder than the previous versions of Blue Eagle champions," he said.

Yes, it's difficult to digest the thought that Ateneo can call itself an underdog. But, indeed, not many had them winning it all -- let alone, playing in the Finals. They themselves didn't.

"If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, I probably would have said I don't wanna have expectations. Because I'd probably be afraid I'd be let down," explained Baldwin. "You can't say this team surpassed all belief in them without acknowledging the fact that people didn't believe in them. I didn't even allow myself to believe in them. I just knew we had a lot of work to do."