The NU Bulldogs might be the most intriguing team of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament.
Can you envision them beating anybody above or leveled with them in the league standings?
Are you confident they can do so in a consistent basis?
Perhaps not yet. Though they’re working on it.
This is sure: they’re a dangerous collegiate basketball program on the rise with a collection of young standouts, trusty veterans, standout wings, and a coaching staff that knows how to put its team in the best position to succeed both tactically and spiritually.
Given the losses they’ve suffered in terms of high school to collegiate players’ progression over the last few years, the position they now find themselves in should be an enviable one for programs who feel they don’t have the resources to compete in the recruitment arms race against league rivals.
The Bulldogs secured a momentous 80-75 triumph against the defending champion Fighting Maroons on Wednesday, a result that instills confidence in the belief that they’re knocking on the door of championship contention in Season 85.
It was a contest where the casual observer might have pointed out pre-game that one side was the favorite over the other, a notion quickly erased a few minutes into what would grow as a nip-and-tuck affair, and magnified by key absences from University of the Philippines.
For the fourth straight game State U suffered a letdown in the second period, allowing the Bulldogs to build a multiple-possession lead, but responded with a third-quarter flurry to regain control of the contest.
NU, unlike La Salle, Adamson, and FEU that day, retook momentum from its adversary and stayed in the driver’s seat the rest of the way, sending the reigning champs to their first defeat, and ensuring there would be no undefeated campaign as early as two weeks into the tournament.
National University might not instantly have the allure of a championship hopeful like Ateneo, UP, or even La Salle would possess, but Bulldogs head coach Jeff Napa put it best when he said that to be one of the “big boys,” they first have to beat them.
In their first shot last week, National U played like a team without an “identity” against Ateneo, who blew them out despite pre-game excitement the Bulldogs could compete against the Blue Eagles.
“Nagtago kami sa kulungan namin na hindi na kami lumaban (We hid in our cages and didn’t fight),” Napa described the last time NU had the opportunity to make a statement.
After recalibrating by defeating UST over the weekend, the Bulldogs finally played with the type of gusto their leader wanted them to manifest.
“We beat a very tough team,” he said of UP. “That’s why they’re defending champions.”
NU portrayed a brand of physical but disciplined defense that forced a JD Cagulangan-less team to 27 turnovers which yielded 25 markers. Repeatedly the Fighting Maroons surrendered the basketball in the backcourt or before cleanly running their sets, resulting in easy scoring opportunities.
Those factors negated the advantage UP had from downtown (7-26 vs 3-16) and free throw line (20-28 vs 13-18). As the end unfolded after the scoreboard was tied entering the final 10 minutes, National University did a better job executing on the floor while the Fighting Maroons were troubled by decision-making and shot selection.
“Ano ba gusto niyong ipakitang identity? (What identity do you want to show?)” was the challenge Napa issued to his squad before the game.
“[If] you want to become a member of the big boys,” he told them, “you need to challenge yourself. You need to come up with your identity, whatever it is, to prove you’re one of the big boys.”
There are multiple ways NU did this. We can mention standout performances by Omar John, Jake Figueroa (who is a former UAAP high school MVP), Kean Baclaan, Steve Nash Enriquez, Michael Malonzo, and Robert Minerva, for starters. That’s a talented core.
We can mention how the Bulldogs were willing to stick with their defensive system despite getting burned a few times in the half-court, as UP made its comeback.
We can mention how smart pin-downs and off-ball screens allowed the Bulldogs to get decent shooting opportunities when the game was on the line.
We can also bring up the little things, such as how a veteran in John Lloyd Clemente was willing to play limited minutes so that his team could ride the hot lineups, or how despite not scoring, he contributed by pointing out defensive assignments to younger teammates when coming out of time-out breaks.
Or how Minerva walked up to John after he missed a first free throw badly, urging his teammate to take a few steps back, breathe, and then calmly make up for it with the second.
Or how Napa would drink water to stay composed just as UP is going on one of their patented haymakers, aware that his show of composure would dictate the body language of his boys.
“Ang laking bagay ng tubig (Drinking water really helps),” he joked afterward.
Here’s arguably the most important part of their identity which was on display: how the NU Bulldogs are fearless when it comes to competition.
They will get up for any challenge, providing at least the same type of effort – if not 1,000 times more – against any opponent, regardless of the name on their uniforms.
“Celebrate ng win, siguro, normal lang naman yun,” Baclaan, a rising star, told Rappler. “Pero isa lang naman yun. Sinasabi sa amin ni coach Jeff back to business at focus sa next game.”
(We celebrate the win, it’s normal. But that’s just one game. Coach Jeff said it’s back to business so we focus on the next game.)
That fearlessness has turned into belief that they can beat anyone. Now it’s just a matter of proving it again, and they will get plenty of chances to do so.
“After we celebrate,” Baclaan added, “trabaho ulit (we work again).” – Rappler.com