In their season debut on Sunday, the De La Salle Green Archers had the monumental task of playing their fierce rivals Ateneo Blue Eagles, who also happened the two-time defending champions and prohibitive favorites. It was indeed a tall order and even though the Archers tried to keep in step with the Eagles, they succumbed to an 81-69 defeat.
The rivalry battle was a contrast of style and execution, while offering a glimpse of where each of the teams currently stand. One is at the peak of their powers on a quest for a third straight title, and the other is rebuilding -- a squad filled with potential and talent. Nonetheless, it was a learning experience for both sides.
"It was amazing. It was everything I thought it would be plus more," said La Salle's active consultant Jermaine Byrd. "The atmosphere, the fans -- it was great, it was amazing. It really was. I enjoyed it and can't wait to do it again."
Though the Eagles seemingly operated like a fine-tuned orchestra, especially in the second quarter where they built a commanding 22-point advantage, their lead dwindled in the final quarter. Two-time UAAP champion coach Tab Baldwin had to admit that facing the retooled Archers was far from easy.
"Probably 97 percent of the games I've ever gone into, I felt somewhat prepared for the opponent. I think that's so important in my coaching philosophy," said Baldwin. "But we just didn't know much, we didn't have any expectations of La Salle. We knew a little bit from a couple of their pocket games recently but we didn't know a lot. I think the way the game played out you can say that they're still learning as well about themselves because they tried a lot of different lineups and a lot of different combinations."
As much as the Eagles learned about their new-look opponents, the Archers were discovering their own capabilities as well. Their new recruits, as well as coach Byrd, got their feet wet under the bright lights of the UAAP. Save for the second quarter debacle, they showed what they were capable of this season.
"Well, I think the second quarter hurt us. I just think we put them on the foul line, I thought we were not disciplined, and you know they're a championship ball club with a championship coach and they took advantage of that. They lived at the free throw line in the second quarter," said Byrd. "We didn't score. We only scored eight points in the second quarter and we couldn't keep them off the offensive glass and that was the story of the game."
La Salle flaunted its new lineup, boasting new recruits alongside ever-reliable veterans. Jamie Orme-Malonzo, who played at Portland State University, shone the brightest with 18 points and 10 rebounds, including a thunderous dunk over Thirdy Ravena.
"I think we just have a few things to figure out. I think we're gonna fix it along the week and we're just gonna get better," said Malonzo. "Opening up with the best team in the league probably is always going to be a challenge but I think we have a lot of improvements we have to work on and I think it will be good said and done when it comes to time."
The usual standouts for La Salle also contributed as graduating guard Andrei Caracut poured in 14 points while Justine Baltazar compiled a double-double.
On the other hand, Ravena only had six points on a woeful 2-for-11 shooting clip for Ateneo. Likewise, Angelo Kouame had a quiet outing of six points, though he did pull down 19 rebounds. The Eagles instead leaned on Matt and Mike Nieto, and Gian Mamuyac, players who aren't known for their offensive production, to carry them towards the victory.
As the Archers continue to learn and grow, they will have to do so as a team. Byrd refuses to use their lack of chemistry as an excuse for the loss.
"The season is here now, so we understand what it was when we got the new guys," said Byrd. "Chemistry is part of it but we're not going to use that as an excuse."
A ton of potential and promise awaits the Archers. Losing and learning from the Blue Eagles will serve as a great jumping point to future success as the season moves along. They look to regroup and take on the NU Bulldogs on Wednesday.
"The goal for the season is to compete hard every night and try to get in the Final Four," said Byrd. "I think we have a lot of talent on this team. It's on myself and coach Gian (Nazario) to make it all work and I'm confident we can. It was just one game. I'm glad it's out of the way and we're going to prepare for the next game on Wednesday."