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Are the UST Growling Tigers finally hitting their stride?

The rebuilding UST Growling Tigers are gradually getting their groove under new head coach Aldin Ayo. After opening the season with a dismal 1-4 record, the team closed out the first round with back-to-back victories to grab a share of the fifth spot.

It was expected that the young Tigers, who have nine rookies on their roster, will need some time to adjust both to Ayo's system and to the UAAP limelight.

"As the league progresses, for sure the rookies will learn - not only the rookies but of course even the holdovers. They're now adapting to the system," said Ayo after UST carved out an 86-72 victory over UP on Wednesday.

"We only started last January," he added. "We just became complete two or three days before opening, so as time passes by, the players learn. What's important is we get comfortable with what we're doing."

Despite suffering a pair of lopsided defeats at the hands of Ateneo and La Salle early in the season, Ayo remained in high spirits. He kept on insisting that the team just needs to execute what they do in practice, and in the last two games, it finally showed. UST rebounded in style by routing UE and UP.

Against the Fighting Maroons, the Tigers built as much as a 30-point lead in the third frame, getting solid contributions from super rookie CJ Cansino, transferee Ken Zamora, and veterans Renzo Subido and Marvin Lee.

"Like what I said last time, we're going to be patient. We're just going to wait for them to show up," said Ayo. "Fortunately, today, most of the players showed up. They came to play."

"For these past two games, we adopted [coach's system] in-game. We played the way we perform in practice," said Cansino, who's been having a remarkable journey on his first year in the collegiate ranks.

The Tigers have an even bigger motivation as they rally around their big man Steve Akomo, who's out indefinitely while recovering from blood clots in his brain.

"Of course, this is for Steve," said Ayo. "This is for all the players, this is for the community. This is for UST."

With a 3-4 card, UST has created a logjam in the middle of the standings, nearly making it through to the top four. And with the second round just around the corner, Ayo hopes that his players will continue to work hard and prove to themselves that they deserve to win.

"Actually we don't pray to win. We pray that hopefully, we're deserving," he said. "We know that the wins will not fall just like that. We really have to get it. Every time we play, we pray that we can prepare well, then come game time, we'll be deserving of the win."