A new age has dawned for the De La Salle Green Archers.
Last year's runners-up underwent a lot of changes during the offseason that ultimately pushed them into a sudden rebuild mode. Coach Aldin Ayo decided to part ways and made his way to España. Two-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala went overseas while up and coming star Ricci Rivero transferred to another school. In a blink of an eye, there was a big gaping hole that needed to be filled with those left behind in the Green Archers camp.
On Sunday under the mentorship of head coach Louie Gonzalez, the Green Archers officially embarked on a new journey as they faced the FEU Tamaraws. There was no mayhem, no high-flying dunks from Mbala, and no side-steps from Rivero. Still, there were flashes of the La Salle of old. Aljun Melecio had his pull-up jumpers, Kib Montalbo displayed non-stop defense, while Santi Santillan and Justine Baltazar were beasts in the paint. In the end, the difference ended up in the win-loss column. For the first time in two years, the Tamaraws got the upper hand over the Green Archers after taking the 68-61 victory.
"I think especially very evident on this first game is [that] it's really a young team against a seasoned team," observed Louie Gonzalez. "For me, I'm very optimistic, again we're only gonna get better. Maybe we really have to work on closing out games."
Two years ago during La Salle's championship run, it was clear who the ball went to in the clutch. Every time a basket was needed, Jeron Teng was there to save the day. Then you also had the dominating presence of Mbala to score whenever he wanted to. On-court leadership and late-game execution were never glaring problems for La Salle. This season will be about finding the right players to make the right plays down the stretch.
"We just have to identify who gets the ball, how we're gonna start attacking, maybe just a bit of adjustment. The players got tired in the end. I'm optimistic with my team," he added.
Santi Santillan ended up as La Salle's leading scorer with 19 points to go along with 10 rebounds. Melecio chipped in 11 points while Andrei Caracut added nine. The Green Archers' Kiwi reinforcement Samuel Taane meanwhile had a forgetful debut after aggravating a foot injury that forced him to play just five minutes.
In a see-saw battle in the fourth quarter, the Tamaraws made the right plays to hold off the Archers. Arvin Tolentino, Jasper Parker, and Hubert Cani were able to convert down the stretch. Axel Iñigo was also critical in the victory because of his free throws. For La Salle, even as Melecio hit a triple with time winding down, it was a little too late. Offensive execution and defensive stops belonged to the FEU Tamaraws.
"As long as there's heart, there's effort, we will compete. It's the decision-making of my players," said Gonzalez, who was proud of his team's collective effort. "Before in crunch time you know where the ball is going. And these guys right now they are all equal That's what I preach - it's the equal opportunity. We haven't reached the stage yet. If you always give players equal opportunities, later on someone will blossom. Then they're gonna figure out who needs to get the ball."
The Green Archers will certainly learn and develop throughout the long UAAP season. They'll figure out soon enough who can they rely on in the clutch. Better yet, coach Gonzalez will have the luxury of having multiple scoring options just as he preached.
Personally for Gonzalez, who experienced his first game as head coach in the UAAP, he knows he still has a long way to go.
"Of course I'm happy, it's just unfortunate [that we lost]," he said about his coaching debut. "More than the hype, to me it's my responsibility to my team, that's how I see things. It's my responsibility to my team, my responsibility to the community, my responsibility to the managers,"
"Personally, I want to improve, I want to improve more. I want to develop myself further especially we all know this is the UAAP. Being a student of the game I always keep working hard," he closed.