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Year in Review 2018: Pursuing excellence in college basketball

(Clockwise from top): UP coach Bo Perasol hugs Bright Akhuetie, the San Beda Red Lions before Game 1 of the NCAA Finals, and Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin is given a victory ride. KC Cruz

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

When the Ateneo Blue Eagles won their second straight UAAP championship, coach Tab Baldwin was asked whether he considered their latest feat a dynasty in the making, similar to the school's 5-peat era.

Baldwin, a veteran tactician who has seen his share of greatness after coaching for more than three decades, put his team's accomplishment into perspective.

"First of all, back-to-back doesn't look so important when you put it next to five in a row. It looks like a little bump on the road compared to that mountain that they did," he pointed out.

After being modest, he was at the same time confident and proud of the culture of success they built in Ateneo.

"We want to pursue excellence," he stressed." You know, a championship is one measure of excellence, I guess. So if that's a byproduct of the way that we do things, we hope that we continue to have championships in the future. Again that's not the goal. That's not what we set out to do."

He went on," Of course at the back of our minds in all honesty that's an endgame for a team, to win a championship, but we just don't talk too much about that. We talk more about how each one of these guys can be the best player they can be."

It may seem like a stretch to consider that a team like Ateneo has goals that go beyond winning titles. This batch of Blue Eagles is of course the same squad who finished fourth in the 2018 William Jones Cup last July as the only college team in the tournament. They are an all-time great team who lost only twice in Season 81. Winning became synonymous to the Blue Eagles this year.

Still, winning is not their sole motivation according to Baldwin. They value pursuing excellence, whatever that may be for them. It may even sound self-righteous or maybe even cliche, but their philosophy has worked. As they strive to be better individually, they keep on winning collectively.

Coincidentally, the value of excellence may have taken a different meaning altogether after one or the more interesting seasons in Philippine college basketball. Maybe winning isn't everything, maybe there's something more.

The UP Fighting Maroons, Ateneo's adversary in its road to consecutive titles, exemplified that there is something achievable beyond winning the game's ultimate prize. It wasn't so much it was a moral victory being second place as there is also value in appreciating their journey to prominence.

UP's Season 81 was a Cinderella story but in no way was it an overnight turnaround. Beyond the 32-year title drought, it was the winless seasons, the frustrations, the lack of respect, and the yearning for relevance. Coach Bo Perasol introduced the team to a culture of accountability and responsibility. It was up to them to pull themselves out of the gutter and finally be competitive. Slowly but surely, everything paid off. They held out celebrating mediocre wins and took losses with pain and eagerness to bounce back. They didn't want to be the league's punching bag anymore.

The path to relevance surely wasn't easy but this season's Fighting Maroons took the challenge head on. They learned the hard way that winning takes time, patience, and sacrifice. Fortunately, everything came together at the right time. They got their second wind midway through the season and carried their momentum all the way to the Final Four. They then defeated the Adamson Falcons in dramatic fashion and became the league's ultimate underdogs.

UP eventually lost in the UAAP finals but somehow became victorious in its own way. Its success wasn't in the outcome, it was in the journey.

"What I told them is that we cannot be focusing on what just happened. Right now after the game, we have to focus on the whole season," Perasol said after the finals. "We can't be myopic in saying that we lost the game, of course we lost, but all in all, we became champions in our own rights."

Perasol's words rang true. The Fighting Maroons may have been defeated by the Blue Eagles but they didn't lose either. It was one of the rare occurrences in sports that both the victor and the loser cannot be measured simply by what was on the scoreboard.

Ateneo reached its goal in pursuing greatness and as a byproduct, won the UAAP crown. UP also won in its own way by surpassing its expectations and more importantly, showed that with a little bit of patience and a whole lot of hard work, a team can become relevant again.

In the NCAA, excellence was embodied by the San Beda Red Lions. Their recent Season 94 title was their third straight and 22nd overall. In the last 13 seasons, they've amassed 11 championships, a testament to their culture of winning. They are the epitome of what a basketball program can be. For them, excellence is expected. It is their driving force and motivation. Anything less is considered a disappointment.

San Beda mentor Boyet Fernandez has four of those titles and is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history with a total of 74 wins and only 12 losses. For him, it's always been about the school championships more than personal accolades.

"I don't really think about my championships," he said in Filipino. "To be honest, I don't think about by winning percentage. All I think about is to give San Beda a championship every year."

"As you all know, San Beda will always look for a championship, and it will be a disappointment if we don't end up as champions. But again, the championships that I had is not really on my own effort, it's also the effort of my players and my coaching staff, plus the coaches who have been part and parcel of the championships of San Beda," he added.

San Beda remains the winningest school in NCAA history and it stems from its deep desire to succeed. It is one of the, if not already, the best college basketball program in the country today. And as Fernandez would attest, it is never about the individual. There is a winning tradition in San Beda because everybody believes in a singular purpose of becoming great.

On the flip side, there is also a different measurement of success for a program. Just ask Lyceum of the Philippines University who produced the number one overall pick in the 2018 PBA draft in CJ Perez.

"The blessing of having CJ is really huge for our program," said the ever-positive coach Topex Robinson despite losing in the NCAA finals the second year in a row.

Lyceum came into the league first as a guest team in 2011 before becoming a full-fledged member in 2015. The Pirates have had their share of embarrassment and disappointing seasons but all that came to pass the past two years. Under the tutelage of Robinson, the Pirates always strive to look at the bigger picture of inspiring their community more than counting their wins and losses.

"We could say that we're a legit title contender. I told them, 'Don't look at us not winning the finals but think about being in the championship again. That's not luck. The challenge now is to be there again next year." Even in defeat, Robinson decided to look at progress. Instead of regret, he leaned on development.

From the dominance of the Red Lions in the NCAA to the brilliance of the Blue Eagles in the UAAP, the best teams came out as champions this season. And even in defeat, teams such as the Pirates and Fighting Maroons can continue to be proud of what they accomplished and still look ahead into the future with optimism.

In sports, winning isn't everything and in college basketball, there's always something a little bit more. There is hope, progress, and the promise of tomorrow. There is also pursuing excellence in more ways than one. In victory and defeat, this college basketball season demonstrated that there is more to winning and there is nobility even in defeat.