The main concern that the Ateneo Blue Eagles had to face after their opening game loss against the Adamson Falcons was an issue of identity. After their 74-70 defeat last Sunday, the defending UAAP champions had to look themselves in the mirror. They had to assess, reflect, and realize what was lacking.
"I asked the team after the other game, 'Who are we? Is that who we want to be? Cause that's not who we prepared to be,'" coach Tab Baldwin said about their humbling loss.
The Blue Eagles answered the call by getting the 87-79 win over the UP Fighting Maroons on Wednesday, earning their first win in Season 81. They played in character, exhibiting their signature ball movement and impeccable defense. More importantly, they executed down the stretch and rose to the challenge of the Fighting Maroons.
"Every time we go out, we have to answer that question, cause that's what our opponents ask, 'Who are you?'" Baldwin said. "If the answer we give is like the one we gave last week, all of you people will label us as losers. Rightfully so. When we give an answer like we gave today, we have a good chance of you people to label us as winners."
As defending champions, the Blue Eagles have a huge target on their backs in Season 81. Furthermore, their preseason success sent a strong message that they were seemingly invincible. They won the Filoil Flying V Preseason Cup last summer, went overseas and faced taller and more experienced foes in a trip to Greece, and to top it all off, they placed fourth in the William Jones Cup against international ball clubs. Ateneo was poised to repeat even before the season started.
However, preseason expectations can only go so far. The seven other UAAP teams are hell-bent on toppling the best team in the league.
"The biggest takeaway was we abandoned who we were. Adamson had a lot to do with that," Baldwin explained after they opened the season 0-1. "We have to learn to stick to who we are, irrespective of the pressure. We're gonna get pressured from anybody. I think that's the next challenge to this team, to turn no matter what the conditions are, no matter who we play, to turn our practice effort into game performance. I think that was the takeaway we had."
If anything, the loss to the Falcons served as an eye-opener to the Blue Eagles. Last season's finals MVP and one of the team leaders Thirdy Ravena agreed with his coach's sentiments.
"[It was a ] very intense game just like against Adamson. But we have to expect that every single game because we really have targets on our back. We need to be ready for that," said Ravena. "Each and every game is the most important game. Just as coach Tab said, we take it one game at a time. Every single game is our championship game."
As the Blue Eagles continue their quest of back-to-back UAAP titles, they will have to look inward more than anything else.
"Doesn't matter to me what you label us," Baldwin said. What matters to me is how these guys actually play. But that takeaway is 'Who are we?'"