By Gio Gloria

The FEU Tamaraws have 20 UAAP Men’s Basketball championships to their name, more than the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the DLSU Green Archers, winners of three of the last four finals, combined. Winning 20 titles is no joke, and in the course of their history, they have produced marquee players that have contributed to the program’s winning tradition. 

Johnny Abarrientos, Victor Pablo, Arwind Santos, and Mac Belo are just some of the notable Tamaraws who won UAAP championships over the years and although the likes of Mark Barroca and Terrence Romeo ended their collegiate careers ringless, they have managed to carve out successful careers in the PBA and have also become members of the national team.

FEU continues to reap the benefits of a consistent program through the likes of LJay Gonzales, who after averaging 8.9 minutes per game in Season 81, has proceeded to nearly triple his minutes (25.4 mpg) this season while also posting career highs in nearly all statistical categories. The second-year player has been ahead of the curve, and the Tamaraws have followed suit, boasting an 8-6 record, earning a spot in the stepladder Final Four, and exceeding everyone’s (except those rooting for FEU) expectations. 

The Tamaraws’ roster in UAAP Season 82 was as different as night and day when compared to the previous year given that more than half of the roster either left the team or got buried in the rotation this season. Despite fielding a younger and more inexperienced roster, FEU escaped a logjam with the likes of DLSU, the Adamson Soaring Falcons, and the UST Growling Tigers, advancing to the Final Four along with UST. At the forefront of this resurgence is Gonzales, who led the team in scoring, assists, and steals. 

While Wendell Comboy has shouldered the scoring load, it has been Gonzales who has orchestrated the offense for the rest of the Tamaraws. In the season opener against the UE Red Warriors, the former Baby Tamaraw dished out eight assists (the second-most in a single game this season) to go with his 14 points and eight rebounds. He has utilized the screens set by the likes of Pat Tchuente and Barkley Eboña either to drive or to fool his defender into thinking he’d use the pick. In turn, he has rewarded his big men with a drop pass or a quick dish for the easy basket. His knack for finding his teammates for easy shots doesn’t mean he can’t get his own; Gonzales has displayed some nifty moves when driving and even around the basket. In fact, his scoring production increased in the second round, as he averaged a team-leading 12.71 points per game, which was nearly four points more than his 8.86 points per game in the first round. 

In the elimination round of UAAP Season 82, the San Mateo, Isabela native was responsible for at least 18.79 ppg out of FEU’s 68.43 ppg, meaning Gonzales contributed a little over a point for every four scored by the Tamaraws. His signature games have also come against strong competition, with his 17-point, 12-rebound, and 6-assist game coming against the UP Fighting Maroons and his 17 points and six rebounds coming against UST. He also had 12 points and six rebounds against the defending back-to-back champions Ateneo in the second round, a game in which the Tamaraws led by as many as 13 points. 

On defense, the Season 79 Juniors Finals MVP has shown energy and discipline. His one steal per game leads the team, while his two fouls per game rank fifth on the team. To add to that, he has proven that he isn’t afraid to compete for rebounds against opposing big men, as he has posted a couple of double-digit rebounding games against the likes of UE, which has Alex Diakhite, and UP, which has reigning MVP Bright Akhuetie and guards in Juan Gomez De Liaño and Kobe Paras, both of whom average at least five rebounds a game. 

Although his season ended with FEU’s 81-71 loss to UST in the first phase of the stepladder Final Four, Gonzales posted solid numbers of 11 points, three rebounds, and a game (and career) high nine assists, accounting for half of the Tamaraws’ total assists in that game. He kept his squad in the game during their big run in the third quarter, but leg cramps limited him during the crucial stretches of the game, affecting his ability to attack the basket and draw defenders to get his teammates open. 

Moving forward, Gonzales still has room to improve and he can take his game to the next level if he improves his 3-point shooting and cuts down on his turnovers. He was tied with Rey Bienes for the fourth-most 3-point attempts on the team with 38, but he only converted on nine of them, bringing his percentages to around the high 20s. 

As the lead guard on the team, it may be warranted that he will commit a number of turnovers, but with his touches expected to increase with the graduation of Comboy, he may need to lessen his team-high 2.79 turnovers per game. When comparing his ball security in both halves of the elimination round, his turnovers increased in the second half of action, rising from 1.57 turnovers a game to a team-high of four. 

The FEU Tamaraws weren’t supposed to be in the Final Four. That is, if you base it on the various analysts and media outlets (this one included) and teams with retained cores (Ateneo, UP, and Adamson) or notable offseason moves (DLSU and UST) that have taken the headlines over the Tamaraws’ quiet progress. By trusting their program and focusing on internal development, they’ve shown that continuity (through the likes of Gonzales) is the gift that keeps on giving.