At first thought, NU‘s Final Four appearance seemed to be a far-fetched idea when they opened their Season 78 campaign with three straight defeats. Others were starting to doubt the reigning champs if they can still make it to the postseason festivities. But then they strung up three consecutive victories followed by a bitter loss to FEU Tamaraws in their first meeting since last year’s Finals which sent them to a respectable 3-4 record at the end of the first round..
Then the second round came where their struggle became very much evident. I almost surrendered that this version of Bulldogs was not really capable of competing against the elite teams this season. At one point, they sported a 4-7 mark, way below than anyone expected. But just like a true champion, they did not give up. They envisioned every game as if there’s no more tomorrow. In the end, they did it. They clawed their way back to Final Four.
In one of the most important games of their season, they bested the much-talented Tamaraws in their second round encounter. After fourteen games in the elimination round, the Bulldogs carded a 6-8 record, sneaked their way into the Final Four, and took the number four seed for the second consecutive year. That’s no big deal, considering they’d been in this situation before as they proved that being the top seed doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Finals after they ousted the top-ranked Ateneo Blue Eagles last year.
But yesterday’s game was all different. The National University could not handle the UST Growling Tigers, who were simply the better team at that moment. Emotions were running high. The UST crowd gave their team the much-needed boost. They went crazy every time their school connected baskets.
The Small Ball Effect
This might be the biggest problem that NU could not solve. The Growling Tigers took some pages from the NBA defending champion Golden State Warriors’ small ball assault. Though Coach Bong dela Cruz is no Steve Kerr by any means, he did an amazing job in terms of coaching strategies. He fielded the lineup of Kent Lao at center, Kevin Ferrer at power forward, Ed Daquiaog at point, plus two shooters at the wing. They played outstandingly against the optimal five of NU especially in the first three quarters.
As one of the wingmen, Louie Vigil spearheaded his team’s attack on offense. He exploited mismatches at the post by either attacking his defenders or creating open baskets for his teammates as he notched a game-high 19 points. His seven assists was a demonstration of how UST used him as a facilitator when NU opted to defend him one on one. Also, credit his teammates for spreading the floor and for those prompt cuts to the baskets that made their opponent’s defense look awful.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs, specifically Alfred Aroga didn’t capitalized on this Warriors-inspired lineup. He was bothered by the suffocating defense (which I will breakdown later) that the Tigers deployed.
Tigers, the real ones, are predominately solitary creatures. They occupy territories that are defended against intruders. In this game, UST lived up to their monikers as they gave NU a taste of their own medicine. The Espana-based squad held NU to a putrid 54.77 points per 100 possessions in the first half.
Just like any other team, Coach dela Cruz implemented the same game plan in defending Gelo Alolino. Before he even touches the ball, either Marvin Lee or Jon Sheriff were already hounding him at the backcourt. When using ball screens, he was trapped by at least two Tigers which led to a number of turnovers. The veteran point guard was forced to play off the ball in most part of the game. The UST defenders made life miserable for him as he could not find any rhythm to assert his game and decision-making. In his final game as a Bulldog, he was limited to just six points, highlighted by his dismal 1-of-17 (6%) shooting from the field.
His partner-in-crime Alfred Aroga couldn’t find comfort zone in his game. He was frustrated by the pesky defense that UST dispensed on him by either double or triple teaming him every time he had the ball at low post area which forced him to kick out the ball outside. Unfortunately, the other four on the floor could not take advantage of it as they failed to connect from the deep, shooting only 5/26.
Much of UST’s success this season are about their offense coming from their Big 3 (Ferrer-Abdul-Daquioag). It’s about time to give credit on team’s work on the other less glamorous end. (They’re the number one defensive team in terms of points allowed.)
After all the trials and tribulations, I’m so proud on what NU had done this tournament. This maybe the worst game that they have played in Season 78 as claimed by Coach Eric Altamarino during the press conference, they still showed us the real heart of a champion. The heart that can never be underestimated. The heart will always be the mantra of the team. And the heart that will always be willing to fight and sacrifice for the sake of whole NU community.
One Big Bite. Proud Bulldogs.