The NU Bulldogs need to learn to close out games

Naveen Ganglani
The NU Bulldogs need to learn to close out games
The fourth quarter has been an issue for the Bulldogs this season

MANILA, Philippines – The NU Bulldogs stand at 4-4 one game into their UAAP Season 79 second round campaign. Is that a bit surprising? Truth be told, yes.

Even if the team anticipated that the loss of Gelo Alolino would affect the team, the improvement of returning players with a year more of experience under their belts was expected to keep NU in the title picture. Add that to the return of former Finals MVP Alfred Aroga, and the Bulldogs looked like the easy choice as the second best team in the UAAP behind clear favorites De La Salle during the preseason.

It seemed that way when both teams opened their years with spotless records, until NU lost the battle of the undefeated clubs midway through the first round. That was forgivable, but since then, Coach Eric Altamirano’s boys have gone 2-4, and are losing ground in the race for the second seed, which FEU now holds with a 7-2 record. The Tamaraws have already swept the season series against the Bulldogs.

What’s the reason for the issues? For long stretches, NU’s looked like the defensive-oriented team with enough to get by on offense in order to dictate pace and control ball games many assumed them to be. But in a lot of their past games, they’ve been that way for only 30 minutes. 

In each of the Bulldogs’ 4 defeats, the game was close at a point in the fourth period. In the loss to La Salle and the most recent defeat to FEU, NU even led by comfortable margins in the third quarter before melting down. It’s been a similar issues in their wins as well, with the Bulldogs blowing margins against UST and UP before escaping with the Ws.

“I really can’t tell. We’re all trying to find out, but we don’t know,” Aroga said about their final period troubles. “During the fourth quarter, I feel we sometimes try to play, like, playing not to lose [instead of] to win.”

Turnovers is one major problem to pin-point. Except for stretches of J-Jay Alejandro’s brilliance, NU doesn’t exactly have an off-the-bounce, explosive type of penetrator to break down the defense and create easy scoring opportunities. This has forced the Bulldogs to take a more systematic, pass-the-ball-around-until-you-find-a-good-look approach which at times can lead to nothing or, even worse, giveaways.

The Bulldogs are currently averaging a third-worst 22.1 turnovers a game in the UAAP, and a lot of that are from the final frame. La Salle is actually topping the league at 25. The difference? DLSU plays at a pace of 91.11, while NU is just at 81.17. That means the Green Archers, despite their TOs, still get more opportunities to score, and they have more talent on the roster. At 26 triples converted through 8 games, NU has also made the least amount of 3-pointers in the league.

“I think when it comes to the fourth quarter, we need to be more disciplined, composed, and when the other team is taking the lead, we need to have more passes. That is something we really try to work on,” said Aroga, whose Bulldogs are averaging a second-worst 11.6 assists a contest.

Offense isn’t a disaster

That’s not to say the offense of the team is a disaster. The arrival of former Green Archer Matt Salem has made this year’s NU offense already better than last season’s. Alejandro and Aroga have had their own scoring bursts as well. But the consistency is still an issue. For many times in crucial stretches, NU has looked lost on that side of the ball, and by extension, their trademark strong defense has taken a hit too. After all, it’s hard to continuously get stops when it’s a mess on the other side.

“We don’t have the luxury of having a Gelo Alolino or our veterans before. Hopefully some leaders step up,” said Altamirano after his team’s last loss to the Tamaraws, who won after Alejandro simply could not hold on to the ball while attempting a jumpshot, paving the way for a Monbert Arong game winner.

“Looking at it on a brighter side, we need these games to develop our character. We need these games,” also said the head coach.

“I hope moving forward, this kind of games, although it’s painful, it will help us be mature and be able to handle those type of situations.”

History says the Bulldogs will figure their scoring issues as the Final Four closes in, at least to the point where the team can’t be absolutely shut down. Their defense, which is giving up a second-least 67.1 points per game, will keep them close in enough games to gather victories and secure a playoff spot. 

But once the postseason arrives, NU’s issues will be on display again. Will they have enough set plays to guarantee a basket when in need? Will Aroga, who looks healthier with each passing game, or Alejandro establish himself as the team’s de-factor scorer when the offense goes stagnant? The Bulldogs obviously want a twice-to-beat edge, but if there’s a time for them to go on a winning streak, it will have to be now.

And if they don’t get that number two seed, they can look back at the costly turnovers late against Adamson, La Salle, and FEU which led to collapses in the first half of their season as the reason why they’ll be staring at a twice-to-beat disadvantage. –

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