MANILA, Philippines – Encho Serrano rose nearly 5 feet in the air, got hit in the face by Mark Nonoy, and made the daredevil layup. It was no surprise, because he was having the game of his life. When he landed, the product of Apalit, Pampanga fed off the admiration of the animated De La Salle crowd, and was congratulated by his new family – his thrilled teammates.
Serrano had a spectacular performance that was reminiscent of another great slasher in Joseph Yeo with a 29-point masterpiece. His running mate, Aljun Melecio, found an explosive rhythm from beyond the arc and fired away to a total of 26 points, showing off a little Ren-Ren Ritualo in him.
It was a game that displayed the potential of the La Salle Green Archers and the learning curve of the UST Growling Tigers.
It was fascinating to watch both teams play, despite the disparity in the final score. UST wanted to go fast and untamed, while La Salle preferred slow and physical. Aldin Ayo permitted his boys to fire at will, as Jermaine Byrd pled with his guys to move the ball unquestioningly.
No strangers to Mayhem, Melecio and Caracut were well aware of what they had to do – control the pace. That’s why the Green Archers took command early, behind their two tested snipers.
Soulemane Chabi Yo isn’t as tall as some of the foreign recruits La Salle has struggled against in Season 82, but his combined shooting touch and ball handling on top of his superb athleticism has propelled him to MVP candidacy. The Green Archers countered him with Jamie Malonzo, whose own speed and length bothered UST’s man in the paint.
Challenged by the strong Justine Baltazar and Brandon Bates, the Growling Tigers found it difficult to convert against the giants in white and green.
If you take away Brent Paraiso’s 9-of-11 revenge performance, the remaining Tigers shot only 34% from the field. In comparison, La Salle shot 51% and outdueled UST in their own specialty – fastbreaks, 24-4.
Since the nightmarish defeat to FEU, La Salle has turned the corner. Amidst a ton of pressure, the Green Archers outclassed the Soaring Falcons in the clutch to secure a character-building victory. Against UP, DLSU was in control for the entirety of the contest, save for its dying seconds, when the Green Archers literally gave the ball away for UP to hit a game-stealing 3.
From a statement to sayang.
Calm and composed, Byrd’s budding boys had an answer each time UST attempted to turn momentum their side. Paraiso converted nearly everything he attempted and made sure his former teammates knew about it. The Archers responded by trusting each other on offense, and once they pressured the Tigers into making careless mistakes, Serrano was waiting to attack on the run.
Rhenz Abando was a warrior. That euro-step, bank shot he made against a foul which resulted to the loss of his tooth was a beauty. That he tried to hide the fact from the suspecting referee by kicking the jarred remains added to the only growing charm of the UAAP’s new household name.
Once Abando was asked to sub out because of his dental situation, Sto Tomas failed to capitalize on a potentially big rally that he commenced. Paraiso missed the free throw which was supposed to be for Abando, and it was one of the many UST missed when they were within striking distance.
That opened the floodgates for La Salle, who leaned on the fiery streak of the man the DLSU community has patiently waited for to explode. Serrano, a former high school superstar with Adamson, is going to be one of the most lethal attackers college basketball has ever seen. The only question is when will it manifest completely. Saturday’s game was a preview.
Slowly and surely, DLSU is figuring out its identity. Baltazar is the go-to-guy and best rim protector. Bates is their screen man and defensive wall. James Laput and Tyrus Hill provide hustle and energy off the bench. Joaqui Manuel and Ralph Cu are the glue guys. Malonzo is Mr All Around. Jordan Bartlett is the energy guy. Melecio and Serrano are the dynamic scoring duo. Caracut is the steadying presence.
The Green Archers have been unpredictable. They play great when it looks like they’re about to crash, and they can lose sight of what makes them a solid unit when the pressure rises. Whether they continue to blossom or get slowed down by inconsistency will be an interesting subplot for the second round. There are only two ways it could go: they will be good enough to make the finals, or they will finish the year as Final Four spectators.
After the UP Fighting Maroons and Ateneo Blue Eagles battle to end the first round on Sunday, we will know if UP also belongs on the same tier as the defending champions, which some believe they already do. Whether or not that’s confirmed, the Growling Tigers are currently the other best shot at halting Ateneo’s impending three-peat.
Ateneo lethally defeats its opponents by finding the weaknesses in their systems and taking full advantage of them using their well-developed blue-chip recruits. The reason why the Eagles couldn’t figure the Tigers out in their early morning blockbuster matchup was because UST itself does not know how they’re going to beat you. Ayo’s boys figure it out on the fly. Their trust and ability to do so at a high level is arguably why Tab Baldwin respects the hell out of his Sto Tomas counterpart. That is the secret of Mayhem.
The only system to defeat Baldwin in a UAAP Finals.
But UST is not invincible. Chabi Yo is a fantastic first option, although the physicality allowed by Philippine basketball makes it difficult for a big man to flawlessly execute, especially against shorter players who get away with numerous swipes. Abando and Nonoy are going to terrify opponents for the years to come, but both outstanding talents are still young and only getting their first taste of UAAP ball. The Final Four will be more more difficult, let alone the Finals.
CJ Cansino hasn’t quite rediscovered the elusiveness which made him a rookie sensation since his return from ACL injury. He is Sto Tomas’ wildcard. He’s talented enough to have the ability to be a go-to-guy for a title team. If he can breakthrough and reassert himself in a way many believe he will, the Growling Tigers can turn from pretty good to really great.
Until then, Renzo Subido has to man Ayo’s ship. The long-time veteran isn’t a top-flight scorer, but he does two things well: make open shots and run the offense. When La Salle’s physical play forced UST out of its comfort zone, the Tigers’ voracity became a problem instead of a strength. If they want to reach their full potential, they can’t have their opponents turn the tables around on them.
They will have to learn how to also win games not in their style.
After losing to UP, a handful of Archers shed tears both on the court and in the locker room. It was further proof attesting to the humanity of student-athletes.
The Archers care.
They hate to lose.
They are pressured to win.
Not only because they’re carrying the name of an entire school, but more importantly because they are competitors at heart. They have been since they were kids.
“I know we have a lot of great alumni that support us in every game. It's a new coaching staff, a lot of new players, so we knew that it will take a little time. We just need you guys to be a little patient because our team is continuously growing, getting better each day. Chemistry is also growing. All the kids in our team are very coachable. They all want to win,” said Byrd.
“It just takes time.”
Just when it seemed like Serrano was done attacking the rim, he scored another layup on the break and let Nonoy know about it.
A few moments later, a wide-smiling Melecio approached his friend and looked the happiest he’d been the entire season.
UST is going to be eager for payback when they meet again.
But for now, La Salle finally made its statement.
It just took some time. – Rappler.com