The University of Santo Tomas' Cinderella run in UAAP Season 82 came to a disappointing end on Wednesday night. Ateneo made history at the Growling Tigers' expense as the Blue Eagles finished the season with an immaculate 16-0 record on top of their third straight title.
History favors the victor but UST's improbable campaign towards a runner-up finish should not diminish what the team accomplished.
For a young team composed of nine newcomers and only six holdovers, the Tigers were the surprise team of the season. They flew under the radar during the summer before turning heads once the season began. Coach Aldin Ayo maximized his personnel and morphed the young Tigers into a fast-paced, three-point shooting machine. UST eventually earned an 8-6 record and its first Final Four berth since 2015.
Led by season MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo, Rookie of the Year Mark Nonoy, team captain CJ Cansino, and ever-reliable veterans Renzo Subido and Zach Huang, the Tigers became invincible in the stepladder semifinals. They overpowered the FEU Tamaraws and defeated the talented roster of the UP Fighting Maroons twice to enter the championship round. They played with the perfect storm of fury, excitement, and an unbending will to topple their foes.
"We always want to improve," Ayo said of UST's basketball program. "Last year, we ended up sixth. This year, we made it to the finals. Our mindset is, even if we made it here, we still have a couple of things lacking and a lot to work on. We'll make sure that we'll learn from this experience."
"I want it on the record of saying that the fight that they showed in this finals, I think it really flattered us." Tab Baldwin
Ayo, the architect of the mayhem style of play employed by the championship squads of Letran and La Salle, also showed his growth as a coach. His constant desire for perfection and hunger to improve in the confines of competition allowed him to push his team past other people's expectations. He tweaked his system and unveiled new schemes both offensively and defensively.
The Tigers, however, met a brick wall in the form of the Blue Eagles in the championship stage. After a lopsided Game 1, Ayo and his coaching staff made improvements to produce a more tightly contested Game 2. Even then, they couldn't overthrow the best team of the tournament.
"In Game 1, it was a learning experience for us, especially for our rookies," Ayo said. "I'm sure, they were able to learn a lot, especially playing in a finals atmosphere. That's where we had problems in Game 1.
"In Game 2, there were stretches when I was really disappointed. There were things that we weren't able to do, especially on defense. But I told the boys that I may look disappointed but actually, I was disappointed with myself and the coaching staff. Those were the things that we worked on during the preseason that came out in the finals exploited by Ateneo."
Despite the loss, UST posed the greatest threat to Ateneo's three-peat bid. Even though the Blue Eagles swept the season by a winning margin of 16.5 points, the Tigers were the closest in staining their perfect record. UST only lost by an average of 9.0 points, including a one-point defeat in the first round and a winnable Game 2.
"I want it on the record of saying that the fight that they showed in this finals, I think it really flattered us," Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said of the Tigers. "I think what they gave out on the court, what they had to give, really flatters us. I appreciate all of them. I respect them also, much they know that, I've told them that. We certainly know what kind of team they'll be next year. They're gonna be extremely difficult, extremely strong basketball team.
"I think with all the teams that we've played, they're probably the one team that tries to impose themselves on us. I think most of the other teams were trying to defend themselves from us imposing ourselves on them."
The Tigers were simply on the wrong end of history against the Ateneo dynasty. But although they may have seemingly overachieved for a young team this season, Ayo isn't one to revel in moral victories.
"I told the kids that it is more painful to lose in the finals than not making it to the Final Four," Ayo said. "I told them that we were able to get here, we need to make sure that we are up to it. This hurts more. But this is the kind of pain that we'll surely learn from. We'll be able to carry our experience this season onto the next, especially on our nine rookies."
Among those who are departing from the Tigers' den are Subido, Huang, and Enrique Caunan. The team is expecting new recruits for next year that will bolster their chances for another championship bid. As for Ayo, he says that he's not going anywhere, putting to rest the rumors of him transferring to another school.
"I won't leave UST unless UST takes me out," Ayo said. "For me, I can say I really love UST. I really love the community."
Ayo is in his third head coaching job in five years. After capturing titles with Letran and La Salle, he seems to have finally found a home in UST.
"What I mentioned before about personal growth as my reason to go to UST, I was able to achieve that," Ayo said. "I learned a lot when I transferred to UST, not just about basketball, but also about life. How the priests, the community, the students, and the alumni treat us, that's the first time I experienced that kind of support."