Right after taking the Far Eastern Tamaraws by the horn, Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin wasted no time shifting his sights on a familiar rival – Green Archers waiting in ambush.
“La Salle. What else would I be thinking about? We have to move on,” said the American-Kiwi coach, hardly giving his team any time to celebrate after their hard-earned 88-84 victory over FEU in Wednesday’s UAAP do-or-die semis for the right to face the defending champions in the finals.
“I think the coaching staff has to set the tone and we gotta come down from the cloud pretty quick. Get our focus on the next game because we didn’t play this season just to win in the semis. We played this season to go as far as this team is capable of going,” he stressed.
The finals is a best-of-3 affair with Game 1 at 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Mall of Asia Arena.
This will be the sixth time in nearly three decades that the “Blue versus Green” rivalry will hog the finals’ limelight, with Ateneo winning it in 1988, 2002 and 2008 and La Salle prevailing in 2001 and 2016.
After surviving a balanced Tamaraws crew, the Blue Eagles hope for a quick recovery before they face the rejuvenated Green Archers.
“They’re a good team. There’s a reason why they’re in the finals, why they’re waiting in the finals, they’re the defending champs,” said longtime Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga of La Salle, which made quick work of Adamson, 82-75, in their own semis pairing over the weekend.
“We have no illusion that it’s gonna be an easy game for us. We have to dig deep and really play in spite of this game that we’re tired and it went into overtime. Fatigue’s not a factor right now. We’re gonna find a way to overcome that. We can’t enjoy this game too much because we have to focus on the next game.”
The Blue Eagles suffered a drop-off in confidence and sharpness after they lost two of their last three matches in the last two weeks, including a 79-76 heartbreaker to the Archers.
Forward Mike Nieto, however, is confident they can regain their bearings in time as they try to avenge a two-game sweep dealt by La Salle in last year’s finals.
“When it comes to facing La Salle in the finals, lumalabas na rin yung character ng team namin,” he said, adding the Blue Eagles’s tough grind against the Tamaraws helped them prepare for the ultimate battle.
“Losing two straight games and then having a do-or-die, siguro nag-mature na rin kami. You know the most important game like what coach Tab states all the time and coach Sandy is the next game. Importante ‘yung Game 1 because it’s the next game.”
Ateneo’s top wingman Thirdy Ravena, who’s expected to bear the brunt of La Salle’s unrelenting “Mayhem” pressure, waxed just as optimistic.
“Hopefully natutunan na namin yung mga mali namin from last year. We have to be more composed this year because La Salle is not gonna play us any softer than FEU,” said the younger brother of former two-time UAAP league MVP Kiefer.