The Ateneo Blue Eagles showed no signs of rust in Game 1 of the finals against the UST Growling Tigers, despite taking a 16-day break after sweeping the elimination round. They got off to a hot start and displayed their championship form all-game long to come away with a convincing 91-77 victory Saturday.
"I always thought the big break was an advantage, not a disadvantage," said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin. "I'm a big believer on preparation. I think if you give me, as a coach, more preparation time, that's gonna be an advantage for our basketball team."
Even prior to the long layoff, Baldwin said that they would maximize the time by practicing hard and learning new schemes. They also focused on improving their fitness and conditioning, which came in handy against a run-and-gun machine like the Tigers.
"I told the team, after we finished the elimination round, that I didn't think we were fit enough," said Baldwin. "As it turns out, when you play UST, your fitness is gonna be challenged, that's for sure. We might surprise a lot of people. We did a lot of running, a lot of sprints, a lot of work on our fitness. We needed it tonight, even though we have a deep bench, even though we have confidence up and down the bench. They pumped those legs, man."
According to Thirdy Ravena, who ended up with a monster performance of 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting in the series opener, the team's practices in the last two weeks had been more intense and physical.
"We really needed to exert effort in practice because we could not afford to lose our rhythm in the game," said Ravena. "What we did in those  days was no joke. Coach Tab really asked us to run and run. We really tried to be perfect every single practice and he really tried to juice us out."
Working tirelessly, as well as playing tune-up matches against NCAA powerhouse San Beda and PBA team TNT, kept Ateneo in game shape. They also used the opportunity to review their mistakes and find ways to correct them.
"We never bought into the stuff about a long layoff makes you rusty and things like that," said Baldwin. "Not working makes you rusty. Working makes you not rusty, and we worked hard. But we're not prepared to say that it has won us anything yet because all it's done is get us to the next game."
The Blue Eagles extended their winning streak to 25 games dating back to last year. They also moved a win away from completing a historic 16-0 season sweep. But all Baldwin wants his team to remember is that they are 1-0 in the finals. All the other records do not matter in the meantime. They just want to concentrate on capturing their third straight title, which they hope to accomplish in Game 2.
"Believe me, we just want to play this game on Wednesday really well. Win the game and whatever comes with that, comes with that," said Baldwin. "We don't want our focus on anything else, especially any talk about records or anything like that. Let's just play this game on Wednesday and do the best we can."