By the last few minutes of yesterday’s 87-98 loss to the UP Fighting Maroons, a few people were visibly mad and couldn’t stand what was happening and couldn’t believe the inevitable loss, in addition, thousands more at the Mall of Asia Arena wore stunned, silent faces. The beloved Green Archers, the defending UAAP champions, got outplayed in the final frame, 22-32, en route to their first lost of Season 80.
The matchup against the Fighting Maroons was the team’s third assignment in eight days, a period that head coach Aldin Ayo describe as “hell week.” After trailing by the slimmest of margins, 65-66, at the end of the third period, La Salle really looked gassed out in the fourth not only on executing on offense but more importantly on defense.
Settling for quick three-point attempts to desperately salvage the game slipping from their grasp, team captain Kib Montalbo’s connection with 5:14 to go made inched DLSU closer at 75-79 but UP had all the answers during crunch time. Using a rotation of only 10 players, La Salle and their tired legs were a step slow against the wing players of the Fighting Maroons; giving up open shot upon open shot.
After keeping UP’s backcourt of Paul Desiderio and Jun Manzo in-check for the first half, the duo exploded for a combined 30 of the Katipunan-based squad’s 51 second half points and gave our wing players one hell of an afternoon. More than being physically exhausted with the grueling schedule was the mental strain of preparing for and competing with three straight contenders.
It didn’t help that the squad and the UP crowd that the team were facing were extremely pumped up by the news and the eventual playing of forward Rob Ricafort in Season 80. The 24-year old cager, who finished with two points and one assist, received a 20-day TRO, was able to enter the game during the second period, and seemed to energize his team after being down 27-18 after the first frame.
Ben Mbala’s accurate snipping from long distance in the first 10 minutes of game, according to Ayo, was a false illusion as they were leading but didn’t really execute their plays and shared the ball. Surpassing his UAAP career-high set last game against the Adamson Soaring Falcons, the reigning MVP tallied 34 points and 12 rebounds. While Ben did keep his turnovers down to two after registering eight last game, the UP defense limited him to just two points in the final quarter.
Sophomore Aljun Melecio typified the Green Archers’ difficulties and struggles all afternoon as the Season 79 Rookie of the Year finished with single digits once again, a five-point, 2/11 FG, two-rebound, two-assist outing after two spectacular games to open the season. Andrei Caracut and Ricci Rivero finished with 15 and 12 points, respectively.
With six days between yesterday’s loss and their next game, it will be chance for La Salle to take a break, reassess their mistakes, and get ready for their next assignments against UST, UE, and Ateneo. The break will also serve as a mini-camp for the team to try to integrate Mbala back into Ayo’s Mayhem system properly.
Going 14-0 in the regular season is something most teams aspire but never really aim for. Last year’s championship-winning squad went 13-1, 16-1 if you include the Final Four and finals. And by the way, the last team to sweep the eliminations were the UE Red Warriors in Season 70, a team that eventually got swept in the finals by former DLSU coach Franz Pumaren.
I can’t guarantee a win against the UST Growling Tigers on Saturday, September 30, nor will I expect a blowout, wire-to-wire victory against a winless, 0-4 team but I will assume better effort, energy, and execution from the boys. The team has the tools to go back-to-back this year: a deep roster, championship experience, and a rabid community behind their back. Now they have six days to remember how good they really are.
Animo La Salle!