Lady Archers fail to stall NU juggernaut, now wait atop semi-final stepladder

La Salle 71
NU 75

UST Quadricentennial Pavilion – On one end sat the defending champions; on the other, the tournament’s runaway leaders, one win from sweeping the eliminations. Only twelve months after the De La Salle Lady Archers were crowned champions, the balance of power threatens to shift again.

The league table does not lie: the Lady Bulldogs have grown into a fearsome unit since losing last year’s Finals. They play with authority, they know their spots on the floor, and use their heft and quickness – exemplified by the improbably agile Shelley Gupilan – to pounce on teams early. In contrast, like their Seniors counterparts, the Lady Archers have struggled to reach championship form this season, having to deal with late shocks to their roster and the troubling loss of form of key players. The first meeting had been a mauling. In this new venue, the regulars, the visiting ex-players, the kibitzers, could not have been blamed for suspecting that another execution may well announce an advance coronation.

NU won the tipoff and straightaway Afril Bernardino found her spot on the left wing and shot with full extension – swish despite the contest. But La Salle started with a unit meant to match the physicality and length of the Lady Bulldogs. They held their own defensively until quick ball movement found Jonah Melendres and Trisha Piatos at the perimeter, opening up a seven-point lead 16-9. But NU regrouped, picked off a couple of errant La Salle passes and finished the quarter with an 8-0 burst of their own.

The Lady Bulldogs shut down the lane in the second quarter and futile drives by Nicky Garcia and Camille Claro against double and triple teams dampened La Salle’s offence. NU’s Gemma Miranda and Gupilan would thrive on the transition game, putting their balanced attack on full display; Gupilan would end up with eight assists on the day and seven Lady Bulldogs would score in those pivotal ten minutes. NU would go into the break leading 36-26, in a comfortable place.

After the break, the best twenty minutes of the season: the Monstars versus the Tune Squad, Mayweather the welterweight versus Pacquiao the featherweight, Outdated Movie References versus Awkward Sporting Parallels. La Salle swarmed the Lady Bulldogs on defence and went inside to Inna Corcuera and Alyanna Ong on offence. They caught well and finished smartly and made up six points on NU’s lead in less than three minutes.

Then NU’s Andrea Tongco and Miranda would take the fight outside and engage La Salle’s Piatos, Melendres and Claro in a gunfight from long range that felt like a Finals series being born. Triple after triple would rain down; the quarter output of both teams – 31 for DLSU, 24 for NU – enough to fill some games. NU would survive the barrage with a three-point lead coming into the last ten minutes, but Miller Ong and Garcia would keep La Salle knocking at the door, an excruciating sequence of missed opportunities until one minute remained and Cass Santos would visit the line for two free throws. She would hit them both, Ara Abaca and Kady Wilson would erupt on the sideline like it was 2012, Claro and Chay Vergara would gesture the letters of their school from the bench like eager Pep Squad initiates, and the Lady Archers would taste the lead for the first time since the opening quarter.

But over the next two plays, NU’s Miranda would break La Salle hearts, first by driving hard and taking the lead back for her 23rd and final points of the game, then by stealing a wayward pass by Miller Ong with thirty seconds left. Gupilan would be fouled, the Lady Archers would miss a crucial box-out for the second game running, and after fourteen games without tasting defeat, NU would secure a thrice-to-beat advantage in the Finals. La Salle’s defence may end prematurely in two games, or protractedly in as many as six.

Epilogue: In the dugout, there would be no recriminations, only new energy from the players and defiance from a teary-eyed Tyrone Bautista. Three hours later, the Seniors team would finally combust against NU and thousands would go home happy, hailing the return of “La Salle Basketball”, this cherished thing you wait ages for that can make one champion coach smile, and another champion coach cry.

Player of the game: Inna Corcuera, who was full value for her 20 minutes in the middle – nine points on four-of-five shooting, ten rebounds, three steals and a block. Her rebound haul, complemented by Cass Santos and Miller Ong’s (nine and eight respectively) completed the massive defensive effort needed to contain NU’s more athletic squad. In their first meeting, NU were 22 points better; in this second, they were four points better. Imagine what could happen if Corky still gets better.

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