CHICAGO - In Tab Baldwin I still trust. And in those Ateneo Blue Eagles, I'm keeping the faith.
But I also admit that after watching Game One of the UAAP Season 85 Finals, there is a discernible dent in those confidences.
UP is good. Damn good.
On Sunday, in a bursting Mall of Asia Arena, the Maroons did what Ateneo usually does to the competition. They made a run, sustained it, and then let their defense close the show to quell Ateneo's last surge.
Zavier Lucero, who averaged 19.4 points and 10.2 rebounds at Cal State University Marine Academy in 2019, is a mean playing machine.
A long and athletic 6-foot-6, 185-pound wing, the Vallejo, California product anchored UP's resistance late, denying both Chris Koon and Ange Kouame at the rim while also churning 14 points and 11 rebounds.
And then there's 21-year old Carl Tamayo, a 6-foot-7 smooth operator who is inarguably the finest gem in UP's glittering jewelry box.
Tamayo, who is a national team veteran, had a quiet seven points. But his mere presence requires defensive attention that allows open looks for his teammates. His ability to crash the boards and block slash intimidate shots gives opponents fits.
DOUBLE THE TROUBLE.
Dealing with the Tamayo-Lucero combo is such a pain, like putting up with gout and arthritis at the same time.
With Harold Alarcon raining 3s and JD Cagulangan whipping out a dominant effort (12 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists), UP has enough weapons to defend its title and secure back-to-back championships.
The Maroons also have an excellent coach.
Goldwin Monteverde is a reluctant star with a clipboard genius that can equal Tab Baldwin's. A Tamayo whisperer, he is a great communicator to his players and is detail oriented, a trait that manifests in UP's sets on both ends of the floor.
But the thing that made me believe Monteverde is golden was his demeanor on the sidelines.
When Ateneo sliced what once was a 10-point fourth quarter deficit into a slim 58-56 lead, Monteverde just stood there calmly. As cool and relaxed as a guy who just exited a chiropractic appointment.
His poise under duress rubbed off on his players and will serve them well the rest of this best-of-three grudge showdown.
Coach Tab spoke to me on the phone after Game One. He declined to comment for this piece. He is in the lab, you know, trying to come up with a potion to neutralize the highly potent UP Maroons.
Making free throws. Limiting their turnovers. And avoiding cramps should help, too.
Game Two this Wednesday should be a dandy.
FASTBREAK. Lucero, a hybrid from talent-rich Fil-Am Nation reportedly commanded a seven-figure signing bonus to join UP. If true, he is worth every damn peso. Kid's good and has the skill-set to thrive in the PBA or overseas.
Meanwhile, Ateneo is also already stockpiling more weapons for Season 86.
Besides Fil-Aussie Mason Amos, the Blue Eagles will parade an all-purpose guard from the US who is ranked No.7 in his home state and has received three Division 1 offers and counting.