Lady Archers dethroned by nemesis FEU in overtime classic

La Salle 80
FEU 81

The reign of the De La Salle Lady Archers has ended. A campaign they began as defending champions concludes with National and Far Eastern, finalists from the previous two seasons, fighting over a lost crown.

In this one game was an entire season, the strong start and faltering finish, the early hope and late heartbreak. The only Final Four team without a player in the Mythical Five, the Lady Archers had to build a title defence around containment, execution, unselfish play, and perimeter shooting. They finished the season with league bests in assists, turnovers, and perimeter percentages. But three of four would not be enough. In the payoff period of each of their last four games, they lacked an extra defensive gear, and thus was the title lost – in the semi-finals, by one point in overtime.

There was unfinished business between the old rivals. FEU had ousted the Lady Archers in the Final Four in Seasons 73 and 74, and defeated them in the Season 75 Finals. Last year’s championship was cathartic, but won against an emergent and now dominant NU, as the Lady Tamaraws were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player. And now ousted anew by the same tormentors despite holding a twice-to-beat advantage, a graduating batch of six, perhaps seven, Lady Archers end their last playing year with plenty to think – and drink – about.

But what a farewell it was. Both teams arrived with a sense of occasion. NU have bludgeoned teams this season but La Salle versus FEU have produced the most absorbing matches. Styles make fights and they did here: the Lady Archers using Miller Ong’s playmaking (nine assists in her final game) to get a balanced attack going early, and FEU going inside to Claire Castro and April Siat. La Salle’s interior defence held for the first ten minutes until a fusillade of perimeter shots from Trisha Piatos and Cass Santos in the second quarter opened up a seven-point lead.

The Lady Archers carried on brightly after the break and a third straight invitation to the Finals seemed in the post when Santos’ high-flipped reverse swished straight down into the net to give La Salle its largest lead at 11. But bigger leads have been surrendered between these two. The Lady Tamaraws made up some ground with shots from Castro and Jacqueline Tanaman, slowly but methodically closing the deficit to four before Jonah Melendres hit a long jumper at the third quarter buzzer to stop FEU’s charge. She would add another at the start of the fourth, and Piatos would fire a triple; the scoreline at that point read DLSU 55 48 FEU.

Then with eight minutes left in the final period, the Lady Tamaraws remembered how to play La Salle. Castro powered inside for two then closed out the high post to challenge Santos’ perimeter shots on the other end. Ana Valenzona hit a three to bring FEU to within a single basket; Siat and Tanaman pushed them over the threshold 55-57 before Piatos buried what would be her last triple to take back the lead for La Salle. Alyanna Ong would score the Lady Archers’ next seven points, but La Salle were flagging on the defensive end, allowing Siat, also on her final year, to awaken from a first half in which she had scored a mere two points. FEU clogged the lane and La Salle shot blanks from the outside, allowing Castro and Siat to erase a four-point deficit with forty seconds to go and send the contest into overtime.

The extra period was five minutes of big shots. La Salle bet on the outside and but left themselves a porous interior. Alyanna Ong hit consecutive open triples as FEU sagged into the paint, but the Lady Archers’ single coverage could not stop Siat, Castro and Tanaman on the inside. With under a minute to go, Miller Ong grabbed a rebound off a Siat miss, passed to Piatos whose bullet threaded two Tamaraws to find Claro at pace for a fastbreak layup, a play worthy of winning any series. But Siat came off FEU’s final timeout to hit a long jumper from the left to tie the game yet again.

With half a minute to go, Valenzona sent Piatos to the line. The second free throw was short. Siat claimed the rebound, jogged into the lane, and with a final quick step to the left, banked a high shot over Alyanna Ong’s outstretched arms. FEU’s biggest lead all game? Two points. Their lead with nine seconds left: one.

Piatos pushed the champions upcourt for a final go, drew a double team then fed #5 in the left corner. But this time there would be no Camille Claro semi-final special. The three-point attempt looped a foot short of the rim against a challenge, and team captain Miller Ong, trying to save the ball and La Salle’s season one last time, crashed into an amateur photog behind the sideline hoarding as the buzzer sounded. “I have loved watching you play,” he whispered to her.

Player of the game: Thirty-four minutes fighting off bigger defenders, finding screens, pressing the backcourt, pushing the tempo. On her farewell game before applying to medical school to fulfill a daughter’s promise: five three-pointers, five assists, zero turnovers. A final play, passing the ball – the torch – to sophomore Camille Claro, who like her scored 18. Claro has the look of a proper La Salle guard, and a taste for the big games. But that is talk for another year. For now, stow the camera, pour out a double, stop all the clocks. Trisha Piatos has left the building.

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