MANILA, Philippines – "Sayang.”
It’s not a fun word, probably because it lies somewhere between joy and misery.
It’s a downer, right?
From what could have been to what should have been.
Nothing was taken from the De La Salle Green Archers.
They gave it away.
The boys of Taft Avenue looked like they were on the cusp of attaining their first statement win in UAAP Season 82 men’s basketball for most of their Wednesday Showdown with University of the Philippines at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The last time Green battled Maroon on the same grounds, the Iskos dominated the La Sallians to clinch their first Final Four ticket in 32 years.
For State U, they’ll forever remember November 14, 2018 as the day the Fighting Maroons’ Dark Ages came to an end.
For the Green Archers program, it was a whipping not easy to forget.
That’s why in their first matchup since the shellacking, DLSU was a team on a mission. Confident coming off a close victory over Franz Pumaren’s Soaring Falcons a few days’ prior, La Salle executed a stifling defensive game plan to limit reigning MVP Bright Akhuetie, whose early struggles got him in a temper.
“I got you,” his teammate, Kobe Paras, urged him during a time-out.
Bright was mad. That’s what missed shots and traveling calls will do to you.
Paras, a former La Salle Greenhills star, was impressive save for a few wild chucks, and was the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable first half for the slacking Maroons.
Before getting into foul trouble, Justine Baltazar went toe-to-toe with the bigger Akhuetie on both ends of the floor. The quicker Balti used speed and his soft touch as advantages and managed to convert a few tough baskets, including an up-and-under beauty which had the La Salle crowd roaring.
Tongue out and guns out, the flexing big from Pampanga has established himself as a college basketball star.
Aljun Melecio was aggressive from the onset, and one couldn’t help but wonder if he was extra motivated facing Ricci Rivero, the Archer turned Maroon.
Both entered the Green Archers program in 2016. Melecio, who had better familiarity with Aldin Ayo, received a higher chunk minutes on his way to winning Rookie of the Year, while Rivero waited his turn behind Finals MVP Jeron Teng.
Melecio was sidelined by dengue in his sophomore season, while Rivero blossomed into an elite name. In 2018, Melecio took the reins of King Archer, as Ricci waited his turn another time at UP.
When Rivero either left or was cut by La Salle, staunch DLSU fans were split – some argued it was time to move on, but others couldn’t comprehend losing a household name who became a star in the La Salle system.
Having Melecio, along with Andrei Caracut, had the potential to make up for it.
That’s why it was no coincidence that the two Archers and Rivero all stood out on Wednesday.
Caracut and Melecio both scored 16 points, while Ricci scored 9 in what was his best performance as a UP Maroon. Kobe and Bright had 21 and 17, respectively, but each point was made difficult to obtain against the physical defense of Baltazar, Brandon Bates, and Jamie Malonzo.
Excluding the season-opener against Ateneo, this was the best crowd support the Green Archers had all season. In the last two years, the number of La Salle supporters watching live have decreased, simultaneously as the team fell from championship contention.
But in big games, such as Wednesday against UP, the La Salle crowd grows in numbers. Unsurprisingly, the Green Archers play better. Ateneo, UP, and UST have had the best crowd support in Season 82, and it’s no accident the Eagles, Maroons, and Tigers top the lead standings.
The whole team, however, must also do their part.
La Salle was outclassed by FEU a week ago because they played liked random strangers who had been put together to form a squad in a hurry. To be fair, they, more than any UAAP team has had the least practice time as a complete unit, although that was by their own doing.
Like UP with its two new former Greenies, lack of continuity has been a problem for the Green Archers. The reason why the Fighting Maroons are now 5-1 while their latest opponent fell to 2-4, is because Bo Perasol has been in college basketball long enough to know that the endings of close UAAP games turn unglamorous and unpredictable.
Jermaine Byrd is quickly learning the culture of Philippine basketball that he can only experience through trial and error.
In defense of the La Salle consultant, the Green Archers look so much better in just a week. Joaqui Manuel and Ralph Cu have been revelations. When the former threw a beautiful bounce pass to a cutting Baltazar for a wide-open layup, he immediately turned around and looked at his mentor, with a finger pointed to his head.
Byrd clapped and nodded in response. It won’t be long before Manuel is La Salle’s smartest player, if he isn’t already.
UP turned the game around by switching the pace to their style in the second half. Baltazar played limited minutes and eventually fouled out. Bright rediscovered his rhythm. Kobe’s relentless attack earned him multiple trips to the free throw line. Rivero showed more hustle and used his isolation skills only when required.
Juan hit a 3.
It’s no secret the playing minutes of Juan Gomez De Liaño has been an emerging topic in University of the Philippines.
It wasn’t avoidable that Juan’s playing time would take a hit with the additions of Ricci and Kobe, but the unpredictable rotations have thrown him off his mojo. Multiple injuries from the offseason have predictably slowed him down. For someone who’s at his best when he’s controlling the rhythm and pace of the game with the basketball, playing at the same level he did last year isn’t going to come back right away.
But there’s always a different step to Juan when he faces La Salle. After all, who else loves the bright lights more?
The best proof of La Salle’s growth was how they consistently answered UP’s rallies in the final quarters. Every time the Maroons went on their patented runs that had the UP crowd on their feet, Caracut and company had a silencing answer.
Especially Melecio, who knocked down a big-time three to give La Salle a 70-67 lead following Akhuetie’s game-tying layup. The Archers leaned on defense to get stops, and increased their lead to a two-possession game after Baltazar’s split at the line.
And then it happened.
DLSU outhustled UP for consecutive offensive rebounds, but failed to execute a clean look. While Kobe Paras knocked down clutch free throws, Malonzo missed both of his.
The crack was starting to show.
When Akhuetie took the responsibility of MVP by attacking for points, La Salle’s defense held its ground. All Bates needed to do was complete a clean pass to Melecio, but the duo miscommunicated and handed the ball back to UP.
With less than 30 seconds remaining, La Salle’s superb defense stopped the Fighting Maroons from tying the contest despite consecutive tries. Similar to UP’s overtime victory against Adamson, the ball was loose for a scramble as the clock died down.
This time, the other side got it.
Malonzo held something which at that moment was as precious as gold, and dished it to Melecio. Before fully grasping the leather, Aljun threw the ball down the court. It was perfectly diagrammed by Juan, who stole possession and dribbled. Manuel was ready to contain him, but an unexpected backscreen by Rivero gave Juan air space. To his right, he had Paras down the lane for a layup. To his left, Manzo was open on the baseline. Under the rim, his brother Javi had an advantage.
A two sends the game to OT. A three is a win.
He stopped behind the three-point line.
For all of the talent the UP Fighting Maroons have in their quest for glory, no one on that roster can ignite the spirit of the Isko crowd more than Juan Gomez De Liaño.
And with all of their prayers behind him, UP’s darling let it fly.
A few seconds later on the other side of the court, Archers bent in dejection.
La Salle put up an admirable fight.
“Sayang.” – Rappler.com