Ateneo Blue Eagles head coach Tab Baldwin admitted that he did not want to face the UP Fighting Maroons in the UAAP Season 81 finals.
"Now I could say it, we really didn't want them in the final, but that's what we got so that's what we have to face. They're a really, really tough opponent," said Baldwin after the Blue Eagles drew first blood in the best-of-three championship series Saturday.
Badwin knows that UP has come a long way since Ateneo swept them swept in the elimination round. The Blue Eagles were especially wary of the momentum and confidence that the Fighting Maroons gained from surviving multiple knockout games on the way to their first finals appearance in 32 years.
"[They're] much more determined, much more cohesive," assessed Baldwin. "They understand their personnel, they understand how to create shots much better and they play for one another. It's quite obvious so that always makes a team tougher."
"It's something I think that probably coach Bo [Perasol] was working on throughout the season and I think he's got it pretty close to right," he added.
True enough, the Fighting Maroons proved that they are worthy of being on the league's biggest stage by keeping in step with the defending champions, at least until midway through the fourth quarter.
"I think that the outcome was in doubt probably up until the last couple of minutes," Baldwin said on the close affair. "You don't have to give UP credit, they did what they got here to do. I'm sure that's what coach Bo expects of them, I was very impressed with the way that they played."
Baldwin rued Ateneo's own defensive lapses that allowed the Fighting Maroons to torch the hoop, especially from beyond the arc. The Blue Eagles are number one in limiting opponents from the 3-point range (22.8 percent) but they allowed UP to knock down 13 triples on a 46.4 percent shooting clip.
"It's disappointing when our defense doesn't do its job," he said. "Just look at the stats of what we gave up this season. If they shoot 46 percent from the three, we didn't do our job. And when you don't do your job, I think it's the coaches' job to be disappointed."
Ateneo moved one win away from a title repeat but the mission is far from complete. The Blue Eagles need to finish strong and fend off a resilient Fighting Maroons squad in Game 2.
"Certainly I was proud of the fact that we stuck to the task and we got to the finish line for the first half, because this is only the first half," said Baldwin. "We can't expect anything less from them. We have to expect a lot more from our defense on Wednesday."