The final buzzer sounds, signalling the end of the game. Winners would call this an important victory, something to build on as they make a Final Four push. Teams who lost try to look at the positive, going at it by game and learning from one’s mistakes. Then there’s seniors, whether winner or loser, they look a step closer towards the end of their college basketball career. It’s their One Last Ride of a crazy journey in a league that has a lot of madness.

Welcome to One Last Ride, where the HumbleBola team profiles outgoing seniors in the UAAP and the NCAA. For our second installment, Juro Morilla talks about Santi Santillan, whose impact on the Green Archers is quite underrated.

“He’s basically one of our best players.”

Photo Credit: Ronex Tolin, Rappler

It isn’t an irresponsible take from Coach Siot Tanquingcen when talking about Santi Santillan. His stats back it up. He’s garnered a total of 50.4286 statistical points at the end of the first round of eliminations and is slotted in at the 12th spot of the MVP race. Along with Justine Baltazar and Aljun Melecio, he’s established himself as one of the premier players in the Green Archers. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially considering his pedigree.

Long before he took his talents to La Salle, Santillan was already a budding star in Cebu. The former University of Visayas Green Lancers standout collected multiple individual awards during his time in the south, including a Mythical Five award in his last year with the Green Lancers and two slam dunk titles in the annual Cesafi all-star festivities.

His play with the University of Visayas did not go unnoticed as Santillan was called up to play for the National Team. The 6’5” big man took part in Batang Gilas’ campaign in the 2014 FIBA Asia U-18 Championship wherein he played with future La Salle teammates in Andrei Caracut, Mark Dyke, and Jollo Go. His performance in Cebu was already eye-opening as it was, but being called up to play for the National Team was like a seal of approval. He was a blue-chip through and through, someone to watch out for.

Several UAAP teams were put on high alert to gain the services of Santillan. The NU Bulldogs were the first one to try in 2014 but the talented big man decided to turn down the opportunity and stayed with the Green Lancers. The next opportunity arrived two years later as the UP Fighting Maroons came calling.

The Fighting Maroons tried to recruit not just Santillan, but also his Green Lancer teammate, Jun Manzo. The completion of both transfers was in full swing but in a surprising turn of events, only the latter remained within Diliman, as the former ended up in Taft.

The acquisition of Santillan was seen as an under-the-radar move by most people since he was joining a deep DLSU Green Archers team that was fresh off a championship under former head coach Aldin Ayo. There was excitement, but he wasn’t seen as a need of any sorts. He was a bonus, an added weapon to an already deep artillery.

In his debut season with the Green-and-White in Season 80, Santillan had to compete against reigning MVP Ben Mbala, future Gilas Cadets Abu Tratter and Prince Rivero for rotation minutes. Despite tough competition, Santi still started for the Green Archers. It was a testament of his talent, getting the nod over studs like Tratter and Rivero.

Within the Mayhem system of Coach Aldin Ayo, three players, in particular, stood out: Ben Mabala, Aljun Melecio and Ricci Rivero. Mbala was the focal point, a monster of a man who could score against anyone with his explosive athleticism. Then there was Melecio, a spitfire guard who could blow up for 40 points any second. Finally, Ricci Rivero was the sweet euro stepping wing that made fans shriek at every move. Each player was given the spotlight in one way or another. They were exciting prospects, players that tickled the imagination of the basketball fan. But in between of their play was Santillan, helping each one in a variety of ways.

With every Mbala dunk was a cutting Santi that made the defense think twice about doubling on him. Before every Melecio bomb was a screen by Santi, then proceeding to box out for the rebound if ever the bomb turned into a brick. Then there’s the Ricci euro step, which we often credit to Ricci’s athleticism. But before the move, there was the pop off a screen from Santi, pulling the defense out of the paint to allow Ricci to dance his way to the rim. He’s the proverbial team player, who was showcasing his value in the smallest of ways.

That’s not to say Santi didn’t have his own moments to shine. Santillan was able to craft his game quietly by doing the little things that only a few people noticed. His finesse at the power forward spot was the perfect complement to Mbala’s power play inside the paint. Most teams would double-team Mbala whenever he touches the ball and Santillan would cleverly take advantage of the holes the defense presented.

He would constantly knock-down open mid-range jumpers, finish one-handed floaters near the basket or gobble up offensive rebounds and convert them to second-chance points. Santillan was a splendid role-player in his first season with the Green Archers, one with plenty of value.

His presence to the team that year was vital in their run to the championship round because of his hustle and rebounding. Santillan was a tireless blue-collar worker and did his job admirably. The big man’s ability to grab boards at an extraordinary rate was a key component of the team’s success. He gave the Green Archers additional possessions on the offensive end while doing his due diligence in finishing defensive possessions on the other end by rebounding the basketball.

As they say, rebound the basketball, win the game. It’s a very simple statement, but one that holds plenty of value. Santi just does that to your team. He doesn’t just give you extra possessions. He provides plenty of energy with every board he grabs, like an extra lifeline, as if a talented La Salle squad already needed it.

Despite Ben Mbala and Ricci Rivero leaving, the spotlight still hasn’t pointed towards Santillan. Don’t mistake that for bad basketball play. He’s remained a very effective player as a whole. Santillan has been efficient in scoring the basketball, rarely forcing shots and simply looking for his spots on the court. He’s also extended his shooting range up to the three-point line, providing La Salle an extra dimension to their game plan this season.

Coach Louie Gonzales has played around with this, playing Santillan at the small forward spot in spurts to play the other bigs in the team. This has brought about success, as Santillan’s versatility has allowed the offense to flow accordingly.

He’s evolved into a matchup nightmare on both ends of the floor. He’s too long and big for opposing small forwards, while power forwards don’t have the same mobility as Santillan. When asked where he is most comfortable, Santi humbly replied, “Depende kung san ako ilalagay. Okay lang sa akin.”

His value for the Green Archers goes beyond his activity in the basketball court. He’s now a veteran inside the locker room, someone who helps team captain Kib Motanblo mentor the younger players. He’s stepped out of his comfort zone of just staying in the shadows and doing the little things, trying to be more vocal during practices, and even games themselves. When asked about his new role this season, the soft-spoken Lasallian replied, “Siguro yung makikitulong sa leadership lang.”

Santillan explained that his leadership style is more on helping the players on the mental aspect of the game. He does not teach the young bigs his personal post moves but he often talks to them to keep them motivated and to boost their morale.

“Yung mga basic lang na mga salita, para i-encourage sila, para yung kumpiyansa nila tataas,” said Santillan when asked about what he says to his teammates. It’s easy to teach skill, but to encourage takes another level of leadership. It’s paid off, as Justine Baltazar has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, arguably the player that holds the most value to the Green Archers. Santillan has had to take a back seat once again.

Graduating seniors with his level of talent would probably grumble about not starting and not getting enough touches but he has yet to complain about these issues. Tanquingcen explained that the decision of the coaching staff to play Santillan off the bench this season is “not really by choice, it’s by necessity basically.” He actually started their first game against the FEU Tamaraws but when Samuel went down with a Jones fracture in that game, Santillan never started again in the first round.

“Kumbaga, if you put your chips all in one basket, sino mag g-guide dun sa mga second unit namin?” the assistant coach added.

The move paid off as making Santillan come off the bench has brought balance to the frontcourt rotation of La Salle. He has taken the pressure off reserve center Brandon Bates, another newcomer, and has allowed returnee, Dyke to showcase his skills with the starters (shades of his high school form has been surfacing the past few games).

The Green Archers have only lost twice since that FEU game, while winning four since, thus putting their record at 4-3 after the first round of eliminations. It has been a roller-coaster ride for the Green Archers so far this season but Santillan has been a steady force. He wants to take it step by step, making sure that they reach the semi-finals first before focusing on winning his first UAAP title.

“Uunahin mo muna Final Four, yun muna yung ticket namin para sa goal namin na championship,” explained Santillan. A simple statement that can be said by anyone, but for a player like Santi, it holds plenty of value.  He’s quiet, unassuming at times. But when he talks, everyone has to listen. His words are simple, but filled with plenty of value and substance.

Just like how he is as a basketball player. No frills. Plenty of depth to his game. Santi Santillan has gone through a lot, but it’s safe to say he’s the type of player every basketball team needs.