A win is a win. The statement was actually one the first few words from new DLSU Green Archers coach Aldin Ayo; the former NCAA champion coach was visibly relieved and understandably exhausted to finally experience his first UAAP game, and notch the first of what is hopefully many victories for the Green and White this season.
The 83-78 win over the defending champions FEU Tamaraws needed a bit of late-game heroics from team captain Jeron Teng and Cameroonian import Ben Mbala, but starting the 79th season of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament with a ‘W’ is always welcome.
#21 is already flashing MVP form. Despite a deeper and more talented roster, and a change in the La Salle coaching staff and system, Jeron is still the main man and most vital cog that keeps the DLSU engine running. Showcasing an improved perimeter game and all-around brilliance, the fifth-year wing finished with 28 points on 11/21 shooting (52%) from the field and 6/8 from the line, together with six rebounds, and one steal.
After putting up their biggest lead over the Tams, 64-48, at the 6:38 mark of the third, La Salle would only score two more points until the end of the quarter. FEU went on a 26-10 run bridging the third and fourth frames to eventually tie the game at 74-all. Two consecutive jumpers by Teng with less than three minutes to go gave DLSU some breathing space, 79-74, before Jeron ensured the squad’s win number one by going 4/6 from the charity stripe.
The Archers are far from the perfect product. Coach Ayo admitted that rust played a factor not only in blown defensive assignments but also in the 27 turnovers that the team tallied as a unit. Aside from the lack of tune-up games prior to the start of the UAAP, some members of the team were also either too eager or excited to showcase their true potential.
I must have counted at least five alley-oop/lob attempts to Mbala that missed their mark, and sailed out of bounds. It was a treat to see the effort and intensity of the Green Archers on defense but expect that part to improve and be sharper in the coming games. Giving up 27 fouls and 25 free throw attempts (while mustering only 17) negated some of DLSU’s physical advantages, and at times slowed the pace down to one that favored the lesser talented but more patient FEU squad.
The bench is better this year. Returning guard Kib Montalbo (six points, one assist, and two steals) and rookie Aljun Melecio (10 points, with 2/4 3FG, one rebound, and two steals) actually played better than the starting DLSU back court of Thomas Torres and last year’s Rookie of the Year Andrei Caracut. The latter pair notched a combine eight points (four points each), far below what they are capable of producing for La Salle.
Torres’ turnover with 21.2 seconds left with DLSU holding a precarious 81-78 lead could have easily been the culprit had La Salle lost but luckily, is just another footnote to this season’s inaugural win. Coach Ayo also praised the production of the much improved and more confident Abu Tratter, and also singled out fifth-year player Julian Sargent for his defense despite fouling out of the game.
Injuries are already creeping in. Jason Perkins, another fifth-year veteran for the team was in street clothes after undergoing a knee operation while Montalbo sprained his ankle late in the game. With La Salle only operating on a 15-man roster, and the season in its infancy stage, health may play a factor on how far the team will go.
Almost every game will feel like a championship match. As the consensus favorite to win the men’s basketball crown, every UAAP team will give their best shot at defeating the Green Archers. Despite losing four of their core players from last year’s title-winning team, the scrappy Tamaraws gave La Salle a scare, and almost came home with the upset win. Seven other UAAP coaches may have tagged DLSU to win it all, but predictions are not guarantees to success.
The school hymn/song policy will be weird. The singing of both protagonists’ school songs before the actual game, is a weird and is currently, a confusing part of the games. The practice for the preceding NU-UE game went on as instructed, with both squads going straight to their locker rooms after the game. For the FEU-DLSU match, La Salle went in a different way. The Green and White gallery sang the La Salle Victory Song as per UAAP protocol, then happily sang the more familiar Alma Mater hymn after the final buzzer sounded.
The Green Archers go for win number two and the early tournament lead when they tangle with the UP Fighting Maroons on Saturday, September 10 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Animo La Salle!