UAAP Basketball

The one that got away: How La Salle blew a won game

Naveen Ganglani
The one that got away: How La Salle blew a won game

PAINFUL. An emotional Evan Nelle crumples to the floor after the final buzzer.

UAAP SEASON 84 MEDIA TEAM

La Salle has seen its share of heartbreaking ways to lose in the last eight years. Add this one against UP.

MANILA, Philippines – The final buzzer which sounded all over the Mall of Asia Arena couldn’t be heard late Friday evening, May 6, as it was overpowered by the deafening roars of the ecstatic University of the Philippines faithful. 

For the La Salle fans who seemed frozen in their seats, silence spoke a thousand words: shock, disbelief, and anger among them. A day they would never forget turned from incredible to terrible in essentially a heartbeat.

Down on the court, Evan Nelle was on his knees, hands over his head, and eyes shut. 

Both teammates and opponents came over to console him while uproar took place around them. It looked like Nelle was in his own mind, probably coming to terms with what just transpired.

If there was an image to personify the momentary emotional state of the La Salle hopeful, it was him. 

La Salle’s UAAP season came to a heartbreaking end following a loss to UP in a game which they should have won. 

According to UAAP statistician Pong Ducanes, the Fighting Maroons led the Green Archers for only 31 seconds in the combined 80 minutes of the two Final Four games they played. Yet it will be State U and not DLSU that meets Ateneo in the UAAP Finals beginning on Sunday.

“We fell short, we didn’t convert, we couldn’t get stops, and… we fucked up,” Nelle said after.

That last phrase hits volumes. 

The flow of Friday’s do-or-die spectacle looked like it would continue what Game 1 started. 

This time it was Deschon Winston who torched UP with jumpers after Nelle did the same in the opener. Justine Baltazar, Michael Phillips, and Bright Nwankwo took turns forming a wall at the rim which prevented UP from doing damage in the paint. The Maroons struggled against La Salle’s zone and they committed self-inflicted mistakes.

UP spent most of the game looking for answers. They couldn’t find any. Each time they threatened to get close, DLSU had a counter, followed by another. Even Mark Nonoy had his good moments after struggling the last few weeks. Carl Tamayo and Zavier Lucero were unable to make significant impact. 

Then came the fourth quarter, where La Salle led by as many as 14. Their first return to the UAAP Finals since 2017 was within grasp and close, so close.

Being back in the final dance, even if it would mean an unfavorable matchup against rival Ateneo, would have been meaningful because it would have been a sign that the Green Archers were once again in the higher echelon of UAAP basketball, a place many of the program’s longtime supporters feel they should always be in.

Consistent relevancy at that level matters, especially if it was a tradition in the past.

That will come once again, but not yet.

“I’m so sorry,” Nelle apologized post-game. 

“We’re so sorry that we fell short, and we’ll take this, we’ll take all our learnings, and we’ll bounce back better.”

The irony of UP’s late-game comeback was that it was fueled by full-court pressure defense, a staple of a Pumaren-coached team. 

La Salle’s guards took turns losing the basketball, dropping it like a hot potato. Their offense, which played with a natural flow and rhythm beforehand, looked rushed and indecisive, as DLSU’s biggest weaknesses reared their ugly heads at the most inopportune time.

“We’re really good on defense, but our offense… we never were consistent,” Nelle said in retrospect of their season.

La Salle finished their final contest with 20 turnovers, which led to 24 UP points. 

They lost by 4.

“We really should have won this game,” Nelle added.

One of UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde’s impressive traits is his feel for timing – when to substitute players in and out. The momentum shifted after he inserted former Green Archer Joel Cagulangan with under five minutes to go. He didn’t mind subbing out the misfiring Lucero, who had 1 point and was 0-of-9 from the floor. He also trusted his former NU Bullpups. 

His decisions worked. 

Then, the Tamayo takeover happened. 

This new UAAP sensation had one of the most impressive outputs for a player who shot 5-of-18 from the field. Even standouts will have off days, but it’s usually veteran players who can buck an off performance and make their impact when it matters most, even if it’s brief. 

Tamayo played with the poise of a fifth-year college vet but with the spark of a young star on the rise who knows no one can guard him man-to-man.

When the going gets tough and pressure is at its highest, that’s when superstars are born.

It was almost symbolic how Tamayo scored the game-clinching basket by attacking the defense of Justine Baltazar. It was simple – a hard drive, attacking Balti’s biggest area of improvement, his perimeter defense – but elegant.

When he converted and drew the foul, the whole arena rocked like pandemonium. By then, it felt like UP had already won the game against a deflated La Salle side, and people in the stands could feel it. The Maroons somehow completed another remarkable comeback, going on a 22-4 run to end the contest.

And once again, it was La Salle who suffered on the other side.

“We didn’t really talk about the game. I think they already know what happened,” DLSU coach Derrick Pumaren said afterward. 

“It was more of thanking Balti and Kurt (Lojera) for really playing their last game here… in La Salle.”

The Green Archers will miss both key guys who played important roles on both ends of the floor, but DLSU has incoming recruits, including the talented Kevin Quiambao and Raven Cortez, among many others, who are positioned to make immediate impact. 

Nelle, Winston, Nonoy, Phillips, and Nwankwo will return, ideally after learning how fickle the difference between winning and misery is in the UAAP. Don’t be surprised if the Green Archers secure a new blue-chip prospect or transferee, which they have a tendency to do.

Ultimately, La Salle, like UP, accomplished its desired task. Fighting Maroons program director Bo Perasol and the management put together a stacked team with a battle-tested head coach to get them back in the finals and contend better against the Blue Eagles. DLSU had aimed to make a Final Four return in year one of Pumaren’s comeback. From that target alone, they passed with flying colors.

“I think that we had a successful season, [even if] we fell short,” Pumaren said.

“I’m happy with the way they performed,” he added.

But:

“Of course, masakit (it hurts) that we could have [advanced] to the next round, but God has other plans, probably, for this team.”

DLSU has seen its share of heartbreaking ways to lose in the last eight years:

The Mac Belo buzzer beater.

The Isaac Go championship-clincher.

The Arvin Tolentino dagger. 

And now, the Carl Tamayo special. 

After Nelle finally got up to hug his teammates, after the team sang the school hymn for the final team all together, and after those in green and white finally got up from their seats, there was a collective feeling that hung in the air:

That was the one that got away. 

Because they let it go. – Rappler.com