Aldin Ayo tells players it's not yet over, eyes on the big prize

Ending a four-year finals drought is undoubtedly a momentous feat worth celebrating but UST head coach Aldin Ayo quickly reminded his players that the ultimate battle has yet to begin.

The Growling Tigers survived three consecutive knockout matches in the stepladder semifinals -- eliminating the FEU Tamaraws and the twice-to-beat UP Fighting Maroons in the process -- on their incredible ride to the championship round.

That in itself was a huge milestone for UST's basketball program, which Ayo started to build from scratch last year. But the multi-titled coach is not one to encourage premature celebrations.

"We haven't achieved anything yet. That's why I told the players after the game to refocus because it's not yet over," said Ayo. "I saw the celebration and I worried a bit because I don't want to see that kind of celebration that looks like they're already contented."

Ayo knows exactly how it feels to be in the grandest stage of a collegiate league, having reached the finals four times in the last five years. He steered the Letran Knights to an NCAA title in 2015 before leading the De La Salle Green Archers to a championship and a runner-up finish in the UAAP.

As he moved from Taft to España, Ayo carefully chose and developed the pieces that made the Tigers as fearless and competitive as they are today.

League MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo, clutch playmaker Renzo Subido, rising star Rhenz Abando, Rookie of the Year Mark Nonoy, sophomore captain CJ Cansino, and the rest of the crew clicked together, creating the run-and-gun machine that threatened top contenders all season long.

With their high-octane offense and mayhem-style defense, UST picked up enough wins to cling onto the fourth seed at the end of the elimination round before slaying the experienced Tamaraws and the star-studded Maroons in the playoffs.

The transformation did not magically happen overnight. It was a long process that required all the players and coaching staff to buy into the system and trust Ayo's vision for the team.

On the exact same day that Ateneo won the championship last season, the Tigers played a tune-up game against NU's team B and lost. They began their Season 82 preparations from there. They never stopped working -- not even during the Christmas break -- until they learned the ropes and saw improvements.

A year later, they are about to enter the finals with a four-game winning streak under their belt, determined to pull off the biggest of upsets as they aim to dethrone the three-peat seeking Blue Eagles.

"I told the kids that we had a lot to work on, and so we worked and worked," said Ayo. "We worked continuously. We practiced twice a day. The hard work, the struggles, the distractions, everything. If you ask us how this happened, those are the reasons. We worked hard for this."

Ayo and the Tigers have one goal in mind: bring the trophy back to España and make the Thomasian community proud. Anything less than that is unfinished business, and the work shall continue until it gets completed. For now, the celebrations can wait.

"Of course, we are grateful that we reached this far but this is not our main goal," said Ayo. "You just have to keep on working hard. ... If you just put in the work, whatever happens, at least we'll have no regrets."