MANILA, Philippines – Just three years after one of the most dominant campaigns in UAAP history, De La Salle University finds itself in an unfamiliar situation.
La Salle, a traditional UAAP powerhouse, has missed the Final 4 for two straight years now. In Season 81, they faltered in the playoff against Far Eastern University; and in Season 82, they stumbled against University of the Philippines in their penultimate game of the tournament to be ousted from the semis race.
It is a painful development for a program that ruled the league in 2016 behind Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng, and then returned to the finals a year later. This is the first time in the Final 4 era that the Green Archers have failed to make the semis in back-to-back seasons.
"I'm proud of my team, I'm proud of how they competed for me all year. Just came up short," said La Salle's active consultant, Jermaine Byrd, who was brought in when Louie Gonzales left as head coach after just one season in charge.
Gian Nazario, who was named head coach of the Green Archers, also expressed pride in the players' development all throughout the season.
"When the new coaching staff came in, more than just the winning, it's the player development that we're really going after -- for each player to be better, for each player to understand their roles and be good at what they're good at," he said.
"I think we're able to somehow address that as a team. We saw the growth of each individual all throughout the season, as the season came on," he added.
It took time for Nazario and Byrd to figure out how to maximize La Salle's line-up. Part of the issue was the late entry of their three "one-and-done" players in Jamie Malonzo, Keyshawn Meeker, and James Laput. Of the three, it was only Malonzo who gained consistent time and flourished in Byrd's system.
Justine Baltazar, a member of last year's Mythical Team, shrugged off a slow start to the season, and eventually found his form in the second round. Veteran guards Aljun Melecio and Andrei Caracut had their moments as well, and Brandon Bates proved to be a useful big man.
But La Salle couldn't put everything together consistently, and they paid dearly for it. In their 71-68 loss to UP that caused them to miss the Final 4, they drew solid games from Malonzo and Melecio, but Baltazar proceeded to go 3-of-15 from the field, and Caracut was scoreless with 5 turnovers.
"We were one or two possessions away from winning the game, but it happens," said Nazario afterward.
La Salle managed to end its season on a high note, clobbering Adamson University, 89-63, on Wednesday to finish at 7-7.
"I wanted the guys to finish this off the right way," said Byrd. "Season was good. Not what we wanted, but for me being a first-year head coach in this league, it was okay."
As proud as they are of the effort given by the Green Archers, the La Salle coaches are well aware that they failed to reach their goal in Season 82. Moreover, they lost key contributors in Caracut and Malonzo at the end of the tournament, putting the team in flux once more.
"But the core is still there," stressed Nazario, referring to Melecio, Baltazar, Bates, and Encho Serrano.
"Just trust that you know, continuity is very important," he added. "We have young guys who are really raring to go, talking about (Joel) Cagulangan, and even sila Brandon has one more year. So we're still okay."
"Unfortunate na nangyari 'yun, but things happen for a reason. We just have to be better in terms of developing the program, and 'yung continuity nga has to be there."
Byrd, for his part, is also hoping to be given the time to keep teaching the Green Archers. A former coach in the G-League, he arrived in La Salle just in January after Gonzales' departure from the team.
He told ABS-CBN News after their season-ending win over Adamson that he has yet to talk to La Salle management about his status, however.
"But I kinda know what comes with the job," Byrd also said. "I'm preparing, me and the coaching staff, to be here. Tomorrow (Thursday), we'll have our exit interviews with our players. On Friday, we'll start to have individual workouts with our young guys."
"Until they tell us something, I'm gonna continue to try to help these guys get better and prepare for Season 83," he said.
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