MANILA, Philippines – The De La Salle Green Archers became the first team to formally clinch a Final Four berth in the UAAP Season 79 tournament on Wednesday, but the news was greeted with barely any celebration from the team.
They had routed National U, 113-88, for their tenth win in a row. The Bulldogs, touted as a potential Finals contender ahead of the season, led early but proved almost helpless once the Green Archers started to impose their pace on the game. La Salle led by as much as 27 points; they outscored NU 28-13 in the final frame to break the game open for good.
"We're still a work in progress," La Salle head coach Aldin Ayo said, after noting that NU converted their shots at a high percentage though they had far fewer possessions than they did. "Sana ma-perfect namin na talagang walang good looks… marami pang mga lapses."
Asked about making the Final Four in just his first season with La Salle, Ayo shrugged. "Hindi nagma-matter sa akin ang Final Four."
"Ang importante, manalo. Kasi lahat ito – everything will be put to naught if we don't win the championship," he stressed. "Call it pressure, pero pressure talaga eh. Everybody is expecting us to win."
His players said nearly the same thing. "We haven't achieved anything yet," said Ben Mbala, who had 29 points and 14 rebounds. "The main goal is the championship, so we have to keep working and improving."
"I still feel like there's a lot of things to work on. Hopefully by the time we get to the Final Four, we'll be ready and more prepared," he added.
Clinching a Final Four spot, said Ayo, is a "premature success," simply another step they have to take as they continue to march to their goal.
"Our eyes are set on the championship," he said firmly.
Having an all-or-nothing approach adds even more pressure to a team that is already dealing with heavy expectations. The Green Archers, with their ridiculously deep line-up and wealth of talent, were tabbed as the odds-on favorite to win the title, and so far they have lived up to the hype. But the pressure of the season is getting to the players, says Ayo.
"Those kids right now are feeling the pressure, and ang sabi ko sa kanila, 'Every time you feel the pressure, just counter it with hard work and continue doing the routine,'" Ayo said.
"The more na nape-pressure kami, the more we stick to our routine – practice, go to classes, go to the gym, eat the right food. I allow them to go out, but go out with their families and their girlfriends," he added.
He also ensures that there won't be any signs of complacency from his players through leading by example.
"Magde-depend 'yan sa coaching staff," he explained. "Kung maganda 'yung approach, kung maganda 'yung practice plan, maganda 'yung game plan, hindi magma-matter 'yung complacency."
Because his players see how hard he and his coaching staff work, said Ayo, they remain as motivated as ever despite having hurdled all challenges thrown at them so far this season.
"They don't see any sign of complacency on us," Ayo said. "Mas maganda kasi 'yung action kaysa advising them. Pag nakikita nila kung paano kami mag-trabaho, sila mismo, napu-push din sila."
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