MANILA, Philippines – In the absence of injured star playmaker Kent Salado, Arellano University is pinning its hopes on diminutive point guard Levi dela Cruz.
Salado will miss the rest of Arellano's campaign in NCAA Season 93 after suffering a right knee injury, leaving it up to the 5-foot-7 dela Cruz to do most of the playmaking duties.
The 22-year-old guard got off to a good start last Tuesday, with 10 points, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals in an 85-79 win over San Sebastian College. He took charge of the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, after Salado had to be helped off the court in pain.
"Ginawa ko lang po 'yung dapat kong gawin, kasi pangit po kasi pag nakikita ko 'yung mga teammates ko. Baka panghinaan sila ng loob kapag wala ng Salado," dela Cruz said after that performance. "At least, andoon lang ako, umaalalay sa team."
"Nag-step up lang po talaga ako," he added.
But the first real test for dela Cruz was on Thursday, when he started for only the 11th time in Season 93 against University of Perpetual Help. It was a crucial game: a win would fan the Chiefs hopes of making it to the Final 4.
The pint-sized point guard was ready for his test. After averaging just 22 minutes per game in their first 16 games, he was on the court for 30 minutes against the Altas, and tallied 16 points, four boards, and four assists. He still cannot match Salado's output, and his shooting (5-of-16 from the field) and turnovers (three) can be improved.
But dela Cruz was solid, he did not panic, and he knocked down a three-pointer with three minutes left that iced Arellano's 62-52 win. "Malaking bagay," Arellano coach Jerry Codiñera said of his new starting point guard's performance.
"He has a long way to go," Codiñera warned. "He has to mature."
"He has to really be the big guy there," added the coach. "He has to lead the team, direct the team. He has to control. He should be the bigger player, the bigger person."
"If things go wrong, he has to (take) control, and that will take time," Codiñera said in conclusion to his challenge to dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz won't deny that losing Salado so close to the end of the season, and with their Final 4 hopes hanging on the balance, is a blow to the Chiefs. Yet he also won't shy away from the challenge of leading the squad in his absence.
After all, dela Cruz has kept himself ready for this moment.
"Hinanda ko lang po ang sarili ko, physically and mentally, sa training namin," he explains. "Nag-uumpisa talaga sa training 'yan. Doon naman mag-uumpisa lahat."
"Kaya po siguro, nadala ko po dito (sa laro). 'Di ko naman po talaga ine-expect, pero at least, alam ko sa sarili ko na ready lang ako anytime na mawala po si Kent," he added.
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