Challenged by an opponent that has owned them in their past two meetings, the Ateneo Blue Eagles needed to do something they haven’t done in a while: Fight their way out of a corner with absolutely no room for error.
And “tonight we responded,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said after the defending champions held tough at the stretch to gut out a 69-66 victory over a stubborn University of the Philippines (UP) in Game 2 of the UAAP men’s basketball finals on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
But a title that seemed so guaranteed for the Blue Eagles even after an upset loss that ended a 39-game winning streak at the end of the elimination round now hangs in the balance even after squeezing out a do-or-die victory—an uncertainty highlighted by what Baldwin said was key in Game 2.
“We made changes and it was enough for us to survive,” he said.
“The two game we played were so similar. In Game 1 they made big plays in the end and tonight, we made big plays in the end. That’s the only difference,” Baldwin added.
They’ll need to reproduce that margin again for Game 3 on Friday, when both teams engage in one final battle for the crown. Because the Maroons will certainly be looking to bounce back.
“Next time we should be more composed,” said UP’s Carl Tamayo. “Mistakes happen and this was a good learning experience for the team.”
Ange Kouame produced some of the biggest plays on both ends of the floor. He finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. And although he missed four out of six free throws, he blocked eight shots as his numbers validated the Most Valuable Player (MVP) trophy he picked up before the game started.
Not that he made an effort to prove himself worthy of being named the first MVP from Ateneo since Kiefer Ravena in 2014 and 2015.
“I was trying to stay in the moment and just let the game come to me,” Kouame said.
Tyler Tio added 14 points while Dave Ildefonso chipped in 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals as the two wingmen bounced back from their Game 1 struggles.
“I had a different mind-set for Game 2,” Ildefonso said. “Every possession, every quarter, we just took it one step at a time.”
UP sputtered early in the second half but regrouped like it has always done in the playoffs. The Maroons erased a 15-point deficit in the third period and looked poised to wipe out the Eagles’ reign after steadily holding their own in a seesaw battle in the stretch.
The game was last tied at 61 before Kouame scored on a putback and Gian Mamuyac pounced on two fumbles by UP that led to four points in transition as Ateneo took a 69-63 spread with 48 seconds remaining.
Kouame ran away with the MVP trophy after accumulating 69.214 statistical points on averages of 12.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.7 assists and 1 steal at the end of the elimination phase.
“I just want to say thank you to the Ateneo community. It’s been a long year and you guys have always been there. Thank you also to my teammates for always being there,” said Kouame.
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