MANILA, Philippines – This year’s National University Bulldogs are no strangers to adversity.
Coach Eric Altamirano and his boys have faced do-or-die situations numerous times in Season 77 of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament but have managed to rise to the challenge on each occasion to reach the juncture they’re currently.
That point is the finals (a best of three series), where the Bulldogs are currently staring at another win-or-go-home situation after losing game 1 of the series to the FEU Tamaraws, 75-70, last Saturday, October 4.
National U will enter the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Wednesday, October 8, knowing it could very well be the last game of their season.
A loss would mean that the end of their 44-year UAAP finals drought would result in falling short of their ultimate goal, which is to take home the championship.
Aside from Coach Nash Racela’s talented bunch of Tamaraws, they’ll also have to deal with the rampant FEU crowd and their unforgiving and exuberant cheers.
“We’ve been through all this do-or-die games for like, I don’t know, three times?” explained NU Bulldogs center Alfred Aroga after watching his team let the Tamaraws draw first blood on Wednesday.
“So we need to step up big time. We’re going to really come back strong cause we know that the game on Wednesday…”
He paused for a while.
“I think we’re just going to bleed on the court.”
Aroga performed exceptional for a rookie playing in his first finals game. He led the team in scoring with 17 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and blocked 2 shots. But most importantly, Aroga was the Bulldogs’ go-to guy in the fourth quarter, where National U managed to come back from a 9-point deficit thanks to his timely layups and defensive awareness.
But unfortunately for Aroga, the one play he couldn’t convert on defensively transpired during a critical sequence of the game when FEU star Mac Belo, who shot just a pedestrian 3-of-13 from the field in game 1, caught the NU big man off a switch thanks to a pick and roll and used his foot speed to dart his way to the rim, converting an easy layup.
The basket put proved to be the most crucial of the ball game for Belo and the Tamaraws, who at that point went up 73-68 with less than a minute to go in the contest.
"Perfect place, perfect timing. Again... Mac is not afraid to take the big shots," Coach Racela said of his standout player after the game.
“We need to go really hard because FEU’s a tough team. You got players like Belo, who plays like a veteran cause he’s really, really smart. You need to find ways to stop him,” complimented Aroga, who also went out of his way to express admiration for the game of Mike Tolomia, the Tams’ leading scorer in game 1 (17 points).
“Tolomia, that guy, he really thinks a lot. He’s really, really wise. That’s the guy I really appreciate on the court. He thinks a lot. He creates for his players.”
NU shot just 39% from the field in the loss, while FEU wasn’t far off at 41%.
But in terms of free throws, the Tamaraws were, for Philippine college basketball standards, tremendous from the line by making 85% of their attempts. In contrast, the Bulldogs converted just 48% of their foul line shots, even if they received more free throws compared to FEU, 31-13.
“I think it’s a blessing they had 31 free throws,” Racela commented about the disparity after the game.
Altamirano credited his team’s lackluster free throw shooting to nerves of being at the finals stage, but Aroga puts his team’s lackadaisical defense as the top culprit of their defeat.
“I think we were not that focused in the third quarter like we [were] in the first and second [quarters],” Aroga pertained to FEU’s hot third period in which they scored 25 points after scoring just 35 in the first two quarters.
“We just have to do what we do best, as in defense, defend, control the rebounds, and try to do better on offense. When the opponent is leading with a high score, you need to focus back on defense. Make stops and try to execute on offense,” the big man made it clear.
He took it a step further, saying a cliché that many coaches in the NBA, PBA, and UAAP have uttered for many years.
Defense wins championships.
“We need to go harder on defense cause the way I think is, offense is going to win games, but defense and teamwork are going to win championships. I think we need to, like, go really, really hard on defense.”
In 15 of the last UAAP finals, the team that that won game 1 has gone on to win the championship.
To avoid FEU from becoming number 16, the Bulldogs will have to play top-quality defense in order to bounce back and win the series against a team that has defeated them thrice in Season 77 (game 1 and their two elimination round games).
“We need to go back to the basics. Defense is going to give you championships. But offense is going to give you just few games.”
Defense was how NU suffocated the no. 1 seed in the UAAP Final Four round, Ateneo, and their MVP Kiefer Ravena, to take down the Blue Eagles despite their twice-to-beat advantage and advance to the finals.
Aroga admitted to seeing similarities and differences between his team’s opponents in the Final Four and the ones they’re going up against now, the latter of whom is a win away from winning their 20th ever UAAP men’s basketball title – the most in league history – and their first since 2005.
“They’re probably the same. They’re the same,” he said before changing his tune.
“But FEU, they’re really collective. If one sees that he’s not making his baskets, he will create.”
“You can see how they play as a team on offense. They’re really sharing the ball.”
Regardless, Aroga promises the Bulldogs will be ready to bite back and even the series come Wednesday.
As a matter of fact, he seems really confident about it.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to find a way to get back big time on Wednesday.”