Imagine stepping onto the court for your first championship series, facing off against a seasoned program that practically had been a mainstay of the championship series. You’re up against a team that’s mastered the art of maintaining their cool while deliberately rattling yours. They possess an uncanny knack for executing their game plan precisely when it matters most.
In a way, they’re like the playground bullies, and here you are, the fresh faces, the newcomers venturing into their territory, challenging their established reign.
Not just that the UAAP championship series is a different world, but you’re also facing a foe that has been there for the last half-decade.
UP started their finals drive in 2018 and has been relevant every single year. It is a program that has gone through hell and survived. They lost to Ateneo in 2018 and got booted out the next by UST in the Final Four. UP finally won in 2022 having a “bubble title” but lost the title in the same year against Ateneo.
We are the young blood trying to take control of a place they have ruled for a while.
If you were in the UAAP long enough, La Salle did the same thing to Ateneo in Season 79, and the Blues exacted the same to UP in 2018. The upstart team has to go through the incumbent to become the new king.
It has always been the sacred path, and there are no shortcuts.
THE BAPTISM OF FIRE – THAT BIGGEST GAME ONE LOSS
The intensity was beyond mere fire; it felt like a scorching furnace where the Maroons engulfed the Archers with relentless physicality and an unyielding psychological battle. Right from the start, UP unveiled a clear strategy: play with a frenetic pace to prevent the Green Archers from establishing their defensive setup. They also meticulously sought gaps in the middle, timed their cuts, and executed precisely at the most vulnerable moments.
Coach Goldwyn and his UP coaching staff deserve credit for their thorough preparation.
For La Salle, the entire game was an uphill struggle. Starting from a 0-4 deficit after UP’s Harold Alarcon stole a pass for a transition basket, the Archers found themselves expending immense energy just to level the playing field.
While the Green Archers fought tirelessly to close the gap, the Maroons’ tactics began to take a toll, both physically and mentally. UP managed to blend “LARONG BARANGAY” savvy into organized play.
Constant verbal jabs and rough play disrupted the Archers’ rhythm. Season 86 MVP, Kevin Quiambao, faced relentless tackles, elbows, and physical pressure. He found himself trapped in a three-pronged defensive scheme: one Maroon held his arms, another tugged at his jersey, while the last formed an impenetrable wall.
Evan Nelle, the most senior of them, quickly picked up his second foul very early, prompting Coach Topex to yank him out. But as the Taft five started to show signs of offensive disarray, Nelle was inserted back.
Even when he effectively orchestrated the La Salle offense, Nelle was as useful as a traffic cone defensively. UP endlessly targeted Nelle, trying to get his third foul while he shied away from any contact.
After the last closest deficit 22-24, UP’s CJ Cansino canned a three, Gerry Abadiano scored on a breakaway finger roll after a steal, and Sean Torculas was left alone in the dunking spot for a jam. The Maroons zoomed ahead 26-34.
Before the end of the half, Maroons stretched their lead to 53-40 with Abadiano and JD Cagulangan’s quarter-ending 5-0 run.
Even at this point, the on-court effect of that mounting pressure manifested. Open Archers hesitated on shots they usually make, be it an open three or even a midrange floater.
“Yun malapit na, ilalapit pa, ayan nawala pa”. La Salle finished the game with 18 turnovers while the usually careless 20 turnovers a game UP Maroons had only 7 errors.
If not for Motor Mike Phillips plowing through Maroon undercut specialist and bone bruiser Luis Pablo and Malik Diouf, the deficit would have been bigger. Phillips survived the physicality of the UP frontline, but the entire La Salle team got outhustled off the boards 45-55 which resulted in 15 second chance points.
THE ONE BRIGHT SIDE
We stopped those we needed to stop
Malik Diouf finished with nine points, CJ Cansino contributed five, and the usually inefficient beyond-the-arc Lebron Lopez had to drain two triples late in the shot clock to finish with 15.
The unexpected Diliman gun slingers puzzled the usually tough Taft perimeter defense.
WHAT NOW, LA SALLE?
Cry all we want and complain about physicality, but it will always be part of the game. If the refs allowed it, then we have to play it.
It’s time to grow some chest hairs. Play the game, not fight back. Make them pay by winning, not stooping down to their level of being goons.
There is no shortcut to glory.
The upside is that all jitter-related mistakes are done. If we have learned that tough Game One lesson and start to play with that composure and the same brand of basketball, we did during that nine-game winning run. We will be fine.
Coach Topex will indeed prepare his Archers mentally to be ready for Game Two. The coaches would have figured out how to get KQ more open looks and get favorable matchups. Rev that offense through Nelle and get that offense flowing.
La Salle will not shoot 2 of 23 from three in Game Two. MVP KQ won’t finish with only 11 points and 6 boards, while Nelle won’t just score eight points and have two assists.
We will be better in Game Two.
And once Game Two is ours, the momentum will shift dramatically.
HINDI PA TAPOS ANG LABAN. MALAYO PA. BABAWI TAYO!
ANIMO LA SALLE!!!