MANILA, Philippines – If anyone thought losing RR Garcia and Terrence Romeo would put the FEU Tamaraws out of title contention, then Mike Tolomia made sure to send a strong message on Saturday, July 12.
Tolomia scored 23 points, recorded 5 assists and 3 rebounds, and delivered one fatal blow after another to lead his team past the De La Salle Green Archers, 82-77, at the Araneta Coliseum, opening their campaign at 1-0.
"I never expected that we were going to win," said FEU Coach Nash Racela after the game, who said his favorite part of Tolomia's performance were his assists.
"I think that's not La Salle," he later said, admitting he felt Coach Juno Sauler's team didn't show it's full potential. "We're thankful nakalusot kami." (We're thankful to squeak past that one.)
Both sides came out hot in the third quarter, combining for 14 points in the first 3 minutes, as both crowds quickly became boisterous.
After trailing the entire match, the Tamaraws finally tied the contest at 47 following a 3-pointer by Tolomia, who upped his total to 8. The Green Archers responded by going inside to Norbert Torres, taking advantage of the Tamaraws' vulnerable inside defense and scored 4 straight.
However, FEU also had an answer. Five straight markers by Tolomia and Carl Cruz gave their team its first taste of the lead, 52-51, igniting the crowd in the process.
Both teams proceeded to exchange jabs – DLSU at the free throw line and FEU with its timely jumpers – to set up a pivotal fourth period.
The Tamaraws struck first in the last quarter, using 5 straight points by Tolomia to go on top by 3. In need of an answer, the Green Archers turned to sophomore Kib Montalbo, who went on his own run to put his squad back up by two. However, Tolomia struck again, unfurling 8 straight points to give FEU a 75-71 cushion.
With two minutes left and La Salle down six, a 3-ball by Thomas Torres put a halt to the Tamaraws' rally. But it wouldn't matter, as a Tolomia to Cruz delivery provided the dagger. Russel Escoto and Cruz finished with 13 and 11, respectively, while Mark Belo contributed 20.
DLSU was spearheaded by Almond Vosotros, who finished with 18. La Salle shot a paltry 29% from downtown, while the Tamaraws made 39% of their attempts.
It was La Salle which first built a comfortable margin, leaning on their suffocating interior defense to limit FEU's production in the paint and build a 9-1 lead. Jeron Teng, who finished with 14 markers.
FEU countered by getting 6 points from Belo and RR Pogoy, but a 3-point play by Jason Perkins made the count 15-7 not long after. The Tamaraws got into more danger with under 4 minutes left, as a foul placed the team over the limit and granted the Green Archers easy points at the line.
A few possessions later, a 3-ball by Vosotros put his club ahead, 23-10, giving La Salle a 13-point lead after 12 minutes of action.
A wide open dunk by Anthony Hargrove opened the second quarter, in which the Tamaraws amped up the pressure on defense. However, FEU was unable to take advantage, as their open jumpers didn't fall in while the Green Archers managed to force some turnovers.
Though La Salle maintained its lead, the Tamaraws managed to claw their way back. After Escoto failed to complete an and-one play, an offensive rebound by Pogoy trimmed the defending champions' advantage to 5, 28-23. Thomas Torres quickly responded to stop the bleeding, but another 4 quick markers by FEU made the contest a 3-point game.
Coach Nash Racela's club had a chance to tie the game a number of times, but open misses by the team's big men kept La Salle in the lead. At the half, the Green Archers were ahead, 37-33.
FEU (82): Tolomia 23, Belo 20, Escoto 13, Cruz 11, Pogoy 6, Inigo 4, Jose 3, Hargrove 2, Denila 0, Escoto 0, Dennison 0, Tamsi 0
DLSU (77): Vosotros 18, Teng 14, Perkins 11, Torres 9, Van Opstal 7, Montalbo 6, Torres 6, Tratter 2, Sargent 2, Bolick 0, Andrada 0
Quarter Scoring: 10-23, 33-37, 57-59, 82-77
Game Notes: FEU's victory on Saturday marked the sixth straight time the Tamaraws defeated the Green Archers in a first round matchup; Mark Belo was helped off the floor after suffering what seemed to be cramps with 40 seconds left.