Tab Baldwin pays tribute to ‘special’ group of Ateneo seniors

The Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles conquered the UAAP Season 82 after an unblemished 16-0 run en route to their 11th title in franchise history.

Winning the championship certainly gave their five graduating seniors a fitting sendoff, as Finals MVP Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Adrian Wong, and Mike and Matt Nieto all played their final game in Ateneo uniform last Wednesday.

The Kiwi-American coach had nothing but kind words to his veterans, starting with the leadership of Mike and Thirdy.

“They have grown as leaders. Mike is probably a natural leader. Mike is a communicator. Mike is a thinker. As we go through this group, Thirdy is an incredible competitor, he’s a fighter, he’s impetuous, he’s emotional. He can go the wrong way as easily he can go the right way. Fortunately for us, he so often goes that just by weight of numbers, he goes the right way a lot,” he said.

ALSO READ — Thirdy Ravena says winning 3 championships feels much better than 3 MVP awards

Baldwin then credited his 6’8 back-up center Go for being a consummate professional throughout his five-year stay in Ateneo.

“George is a guy that I didn’t expect a lot from the beginning. I knew he was intelligent. But what he has in terms of the context of our team, he has respect from everybody, including all the coaches, for a person who gives everything he has to give, and we want more. We want more athleticism, we want more speed, we want more quickness. And he tries, he gives everything he’s got. The one thing he gives that we all depend on a bit is that intellect, that basketball IQ. And that calm under pressure. And he’s been for us for forever,” he shared.

READ — Outgoing Isaac Go looks back at five-year playing career for Ateneo

The former Gilas coach then admitted that losing a player of Wong’s caliber stings, but said he wishes nothing but the best for him as he will try his luck n the pros next year.

“AD I don’t really have a lot to say because I really didn’t think that I was gonna lose him. I thought he was gonna stay for another year. I told him I will support him in whatever he did. I haven’t told him this but it hurt when he told he was leaving. I told him I love you, God bless you, go and I’ll support you no matter what you do. But I hate losing him. I hate losing any player I could have another go with. Why do I hate losing him? Man, two-way players there aren’t around everyday. He’s a force at the defensive end and he’s such a reliable offensive player when it comes to shooting. He’s execution on offense, he’s just incredibly reliable. And he’s a star in the making this guy. Trust me he’s a star in the making,” he said.

Baldwin saved his best praises for his floor general, Matt, who embodied his teachings both on and off the court.

“This guy right here (Matt), he’s something between a brother and a son, certainly a friend. You can just put a W on his head. He’s a winner. He wins all the time. And losing hurts him more than anybody else. And he takes it personal and he carries it onto the next event so he doesn’t lose that one. I think all of these guys give us a lot of character but a lot of times, as Matt goes, we go. The rest he knows. I’ve told him. He’s a special human being,” he said.

The Blue Eagles truly had one of the deepest rosters this year, and Baldwin managed to bring out the best of each individual.

“So I thank you to each and every one of you guys. You’re all special. You’ve brought something incredibly special to this team and you will be a gigantic hole  to fill. Of course we will work hard in filling it. And they know they better come back and see us and even train with us and we’ll get them in shape. I love them all. I love them all,” he concluded.

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