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UST Growling Tigers: Hurting, Hungry…and Hopeful - UAAP Season 76

UST Growling Tigers: Hurting, Hungry…and Hopeful

By Anthony Divinagracia Posted Jul 10th 2014

The University of Santo Tomas hopes that third time is the charm as the Growling Tigers go for a third straight Finals appearance and their first title since 2006.

Kevin Ferrer smiled before the camera.

“Ako din, pa-picture!”

Ferrer, with all his sweaty 6-foot-4 frame, quickly obliged, comfortably hooking one arm on the giggly kolehiyala’s shoulder.

But the fan-girling – Tigers-inspired – didn’t end there.

“Kay Aljon naman!” one of the ladies incited. The wisecracking Ferrer fed their persistence up a notch.

“Aljon, ikaw daw. Assist.” Mariano, the incoming captain, gamely acknowledged the heads-up and the camera blinked one more time.

Picture this: From Ferrer to Mariano. Does it ring a bell?

It did so. Flashback to Game 1 of last year’s finals: With 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Tigers up, 73-72, Ferrer rifled an errant pass to a running Mariano, who spilled the ball off his paws and UST looked spoiled as overnight cat food. But Karim Abdul was there, rejecting a potential LA Revilla game-winning lay-up in the dying seconds to preserve the Tigers’ heads.

Mariano returned the favour more horribly in Game 3, catapulting the leather off the outstretched arms of Ferrer in the last 30 ticks of the make-or-break encounter and the Tigers holding a precarious 69-68 lead. And Abdul? The man was right there. Watching. He watched a few more minutes until his desperation three kissed the board at the horn. UST lost the Finals anew.

All three had their moments in front of the camera in that gut-wrenching night when the Tigers almost had that One in the bag. Yet despite blundering with glory, Ferrer and Mariano stayed in the pocket lenses of every UAAP, let alone USTfan-girl.

But Abdul? Neither Ferrer nor Mariano dared to “assist” him in that steamy Saturday afternoon.

“How about us? How about the team? You always ask for something!” newly appointed UST coach Bong dela Cruz barked on Abdul’s face at centercourt.

Dela Cruz, who replaced the fiery Pido Jarencio at the Tigers’ helm in the off-season, looked upset beyond that slight “misunderstanding” with his prized import. UST had just lost a tune-up game against Lyceum in the Pirates’ own turf, 55-60.

“May pinag-usapan lang kami. May inayos lang,”Dela Cruz later explained his “moment” with Abdul, who fared poorly against cousin and Lyceum reinforcement Azis Mbomiko in their head-to-head match-up at the paint.

UST, despite having a solid core of veterans which figured prominently in two straight Finals, remained a work in progress, stressed the former Jarencio deputy.

“Honestly sa tune-up na ito lang kami nakumpleto as a team. Hindi pa nga nakalaro si Father (Eduardo Dacquioag) kasi may sprain siya.”

Nevertheless, Dela Cruz liked what he saw – in a rather consolatory tone.

The lanky Ferrer was his usual self, firing threes to ambush Lyceum’s perimeter defense a couple of times. Mariano pierced the lane with slashing accuracy. John Sheriff, UST’s post-season revelation, tattooed UST’s offense in his system like the artworks paintedon his biceps. Kim Lo, Kent Lao, Paolo Pe and the returning Louie Vigil provided the needed back-up from all fours.

Of course the incoming co-captain Abdul – explaining or complaining – showed jiffs of brilliance against Lyceum’s relatively smaller frontline. He gamely mixed and nixed Mbomiko and the other bigs up front, outrebounding and outhustling them most of the time. But the vaunted offensive game was simply not there just yet as Abdul terribly missed on easy putbacks, lay-ups, and short jumpers.

“May mga postives na akong nakita. We are constantly improving every time we step on the court. Some played well but the others are still adjusting. It’s a non-bearing game, yes, but it helped gauge our level of teamwork at this point,” Dela Cruz said.

Missing factor

With practically an experienced and intact lineup, is there still anything missing?

“Better teamwork,”Dela Cruz frankly replied.

Chemistry issues speaking, Dela Cruz admitted the Tigers are yet to fully jell as a unit, especially on defense. Underneath, Abdul remains the defensive anchor, but UST’s rookie coach wants his other bigs to fill the gaps in the lane.

“Siyempre, hindi lang dapat siya (Abdul) ang laging humaharang sa gitna. Hindi ganoon kalaki ang team so dapat team effort kami sa depensa sa ilalim.”

Last season, the Tigers placed third in the blocks department with 3.9 rejections a game. Abdul fronting UST’s blocking party with two swats an outing to become the top shooting kill-joy among big men. The Espana army was also successful in limiting their opponents to just 68.3 points a game, the second-best in Season 76.Meanwhile, UST was fourth-best among team pick-pockets with 4.6 steals a game.

Except for Abdul, who kept his double-double averages (15.8 points and 11.3 rebounds in 32.5 minutes a game last season) for the third straight year, UST’s frontline productiondepended on Ferrer (12.2 points and 7.4 rebounds) and Mariano (11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds).

Pe may be dishing out intangibles to UST’s inside game, but the graduating center-forward should do more than that this season. On his fourth year, the 6-foot-4 Pe normed a forgettable one point, 3.1 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks while giving up 2.1 fouls an outing as Abdul’s premier back-up.

Incoming second-year Jeepy Faundo was rarely used last season but his 6-foot-6 build can be utilized more to ease the burden off Abdul, Ferrer, Mariano, and Pe, and provide another inside option for the Tigers.

Yet despite playing teams with more heft and height like defending champion De La Salle University, Far Eastern University (FEU) and National University (NU) among others last season, the Tigers still managed to acquit themselves, finishing third in rebounding (46.8 rpg), which translated to a mean of 30.6 points in the paint and 9.7 second-chance points, good for fifth and sixth, respectively.

“Wala talaga kaming masyadong bigmen kaya kailangang mag-extra effort na lang kami sa loob,” Dela Cruz said.

Slugging it all out with basically a nine-man rotation, the Tigers seldom had fresh legs to run the court for an entire 48 minutes or so, but still mustered a fourth-best 9.6 fastbreak points an outing.

Lessons learned

If there’s anything clawless – and clueless – about the Tiger’s offense, it’s their unpredictable outside sniping.

Crunch these numbers: 23.9 ppg in three-point shooting and 23 ppg from the perimeter, arguably the worst averages – both at eight place – last season. UST then had the gunslinger captain JericTeng and Clark Bautista who are equally deadly from beyond the arc. Now, the Tigers are confronted with the grim possibility of busting up more than ever from the outside if Vigil and Dacquioag among other fail to plug the holes at the two-guard spot.

How about UST’s 12.6 assists per game?

“We can do better than that,”Dela Cruz said.

Playmaking-wise, Sheriff has earned his stripes as the Tigers’ top court general despite a belated tear in the post-season. Dacquioag did well as UST’s make-shift quarterback in the early phase of its Season 76 campaign, stirring mismatches in the backcourt as a repackaged combo-guard.

Dacquioag can now slide to his natural shooting guard spot with De La Salle-Zobel standout Renzo Subido already on board. Subido, who has been the Junior Archers’ point guard in the last four years, sure knows how to share the offensive wealth on top of a reliable shooting arsenal.

“Initially he was not part of the team kasi na-late siya sa pagpasok sa team. Pero he did well in our practices and tune-up games that’s why we reconsidered our decision and put him in (the lineup),”Dela Cruz explained.

But there’s another side to playmaking: managing team turnovers. The Tigers were not particularly good at this, ranking fourth in turnovers with 15.1 miscues an outing. Abdul and Mariano combined for five turnovers a game. In the Finals, the Tigers ditched possessions with an average of 12.7 times in three games. On the other hand, UST was seventh in turnover points (10 ppg).

UST was also last season’s second most whistled team, incurring 20.3 fouls a contest mostly from its bigs. Getting the others involved was more problematic. For all intents and purposes, UST was eight in bench scoring (16.7 ppg). That shoe-string rotation became obvious when the Tigers scraped rock-bottom on La Salle’s deeper tank in the Finals. But not this season, according to Dela Cruz.

“Nakikita ko naman na deep bench kami ngayon. Pero dapat lahat mag-step up pa rin. Hindi lang yung mga beterano,” he pointed out, citing the addition of newcomers Subido, Raymart Sablan of University of the Philippines, Alfren Gayosa of San Sebastian, Levi Dela Cruz of NU, and Regie Boy Basibas of Bal-ason National High School in Misamis Oriental.

Last May, the Tigers did exactly that in the Fr. Martin Cup Finals when they gutted it out against the Aric del Rosario-coached Perpetual Help Altas, despite missing Ferrer and Dacquioag. UST though lost the winner-take-all encounter, 56-65.

“Ang preparation naming is one game at a time. Unang target naming makapasok muna sa Final Four,” said Dela Cruz, who will practically use the same patterns from Jarencio’s playbook.

La Salle, FEU and five-peat champion Ateneo de Manila University are on top of Dela Cruz’ heavyweight list. But NU and University of the East are not far behind with the Bulldogs and the Warriors parading two imports each.

The Tigers themselves are also ranked among the favorites. But Dela Cruz and his war-scarred veterans refuse to embrace the pre-season hype.

“Marami kaming natutunang lesson. So ‘yung mistakes ‘di na dapat maulit. Nire-remind din naming mga sarili naming na two straight years na tayong runner-up. Kunin na natin ngayon,” said Mariano, vowing to erase the stigma of that bitter Finals defeat that made him a goat among wounded Tigers.

Gone are Jarencio and Teng. What is left now in the Tigers’ lair are a bunch of hurting, hungry –and hopeful – men.

“Siguro hindi pa para sa’min ‘yung championship last year. Hopefully this year makuha na namin,” Dela Cruz said.

Hopefully, Ferrer, Mariano, and Abdul will again smile before the camera – with the One that got away. Fan-girls included.