by Neal Tieng
“NO!!!” was the message La Salle sent to the finals-seeking UP Maroons.
The Green Archers continued the momentum from their comfortable victory over NU in the last elimination round games en route to a dominating first half of the win-or-go-home game against 2nd placer UP, before weathering a final minute UP rally to grab game one of the Final Four, 83-80 last night at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Green Archers jumped out of the gates by locking down the prime UP offensive options, and blitzed the Maroons with an array of offensive plays to create a 24-15 separation in the first quarter. Jumping early at every offensive move of UP rookie Carl Tamayo and not allowing any Maroon open looks from the outside, La Salle sustained the momentum in the second quarter and ended the half at 48-37.
“They played 40 minutes of solid, disciplined basketball”, Coach and Manong Derrick Pumaren said in the post-game presser.
The signature Pumaren defense was in full display, shackling UP in the first half and forcing them to a very poor 27% shooting clip from the field. Had it not for the 12 free throws awarded to the Maroons, the Green Archers’ lead could have been considered as a blow-out by halftime.
Justine Baltazar, fueled by the motivation to extend his UAAP career, almost registered an early double-double with 11 points and 9 boards before the end of the half. More importantly, the frontline defense of Baltazar , Michael Phillips, and Bright Nwankwo limited UP’s Tamayo to only 3 points in the entire first half by throwing smothering double teams.
At the third, it was Evan Nelle’s turn to drive the La Salle offensive. The former top point guard of the NCAA dominated the third quarter with 9 points and shot 2 out of 3 from deep, sparking a 16-4 run that swelled a 50-40 lead into 66-44 with 2:27 left in the 3rd quarter.
As expected, the Diliman team would not just roll over and hand the game over to La Salle. Remember that their battle cry is “UP Fight!”.
After improving La Salle import Bright Nwankwo pushed the Green Archers to another 15-point lead at the midway through the final ten minutes, UP started to creep back into the game by capitalizing on careless possessions, running free with breakaway dunks in transition while benefitting from a bunch of La Salle missed free throws.
UP was able to sneak their way to within six 81-75 with 23 seconds to go. Another UP rookie, Jerry Abandanio made another three to shrink the lead to three, 81-78 with 12 ticks to go.
Nelle capped off his UAAP career game so far, with a game-sealing free throw to keep La Salle beyond the reach of UP 82-78 and force a sudden-death Friday.
Nelle had a monster game with 26 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists while shooting at a clinical 61.5% from the field. Balti Baltazar finished with his usual double-double with 18 points and 15 boards while the steady Kurt Lojera had 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in a sensational all-around game. Motor Mike Phillips was a major factor in La Salle’s control of the boards with 15 rebounds while Bright Nwankwo contributed the intangibles with his 7’2 wingspan protecting the rim.
“We just tied the series. We have to go back to the drawing boards to plan and be ready for UP”, cautioned Pumaren, but added, “this time, the momentum is on our side”.
The Green Archers will face off once more against the reeling UP Maroons on Friday, May 6, 2022.
ANIMOOOOO LA SALLE!!!