From underdog to favorite: Aldin Ayo embraces the pressure

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Aldin Ayo won the hearts and admiration of many last year when he helped Letran, his alma mater, complete an impressive title run at the expense of archrival San Beda in the NCAA seniors basketball tourney.

This time, Ayo is eager to prove his initial collegiate cage title is no fluke as tries to lead powerhouse La Salle past archnemesis Ateneo in a best-of-three titular showdown for the UAAP Season 79 men’s basketball crown starting on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

From being a perceived underdog with the Knights, Ayo will be embracing a new role this time with the Green Archers who will come in as the favorites over the Blue Eagles following their near flawless showing in the eliminations and a quicker entry to the final stage by eliminating the Adamson Soaring Falcons last week.

The sole thought of becoming the first mentor in recent memory to claim the coveted titles on the country’s premier collegiate leagues in back-to-back years should be enough for Ayo—or anybody on his current shoes—to be filled with excitement.

However, Ayo, with his insatiable hunger for success, isn’t one to be swayed by such feeling.

“Hindi ako nag-iisip ng kung ano ang na-accomplish. Bottomline, I’m just grateful to be here, I’m just grateful to have this kind of job. Mahal na mahal ko ang basketball and ‘yun pa ang naging trabaho,” he said on his usual straight-face demeanor.

“Gusto ko lang manalo talaga. ‘Yung Letran nga hindi ko na-celebrate ‘yung championship ko doon. Kasi ang approach ko, sinasabi ko sa mga bata, every time you do something good, just keep it to yourself, because if you celebrate it, if you enjoy it, mawawala eh. But if you keep it to yourself, mape-preserve ‘yun. Andoon lang sa’yo.”

Behind a potent crew, led by prized Cameroon import Ben Mbala, envy of many, the Green Archers have already been given an added pressure to regain their lost glory and reclaim the crown which they last hoisted in 2013 under former coach Juno Sauler.

Ayo, however, has done a commendable job on trying to keep the Green Archers on their toes since Day 1 and avoid—as much as possible—treating their rivals lightly.

“Magka-iba kasi ‘yung pressure,” he said before taking a pause to stress his main point. “Mas mahirap.

“‘Yung pakiramdam ko sa 14 wins, hindi dapat i-celebrate. Every won game for me it’s just relief. Palaging feeling ko, ‘Ay salamat, nakaraos din.’ Hindi katulad nung nasa Letran na every won game, kailangan mo i-celebrate kasi nobody was expecting us to win. It’s different, different situation. But if there’s one thing na parehas, siyempre it’s just basketball.”

This year’s dream finals series will be the first ‘‘Blue versus Green” showdown since 2008 and both schools are eager to break away from their tie with eight titles each.

Based on their head-to-head meetings in the elimination round, La Salle and Ateneo appear to be even Steven. The Green Archers took the first round behind a sound 97-81 beating before the Blue Eagles turned the tables around in style with an 83-71 stunner in the second round.

Making any predictions, however, is the least of Ayo’s concerns.

“Anytime you do that, nadi-disrespect mo ‘yung laro. Let’s just let nature take its course. Kung ano ang mangyari sa laro, ‘yun na yun. Basta gagawin lang namin lahat ng makakaya namin,” he said.

While he’s concerned about the Blue Eagles’ “collective spirit and willingness to win,” Ayo is confident the Green Archers will heed his call of playing with ample poise and killer’s instinct.

“It will be a game of who wants it more. Hindi lang effort kundi siyempre ‘yung execution. We have to use our heads first before making a move, kasi for sure pinaghandaan na rin kami,” he stressed.

“Kami naman, lagi kong sinasabi ko sa mga bata na whatever you do, dapat may purpose, dapat may objective. Wala dapat nasasayang, walang unnecessary na galaw. Kasi yang mga unnecessary na yun, baka pagdating sa dulo, pagsisihan namin.” – By Jerome Lagunzad

Follow this writer on Twitter: @BudoyLagunzad