MANILA, Philippines -- La Salle head coach Derrick Pumaren was relieved that the Green Archers managed to take care of business against University of Santo Tomas on Wednesday, despite once again playing with an undermanned roster.
La Salle needed a victory against the Growling Tigers to stay in the hunt for a Final 4 spot in UAAP Season 85, and they got it the hard way. The Green Archers clawed out of a nine-point hole in the final quarter before holding on for a 77-72 triumph.
"I was telling the boys, we gotta win first before we talk about the second game," said Pumaren, referring to the final elimination round game between Ateneo de Manila University and Adamson University.
"The most important thing is we have to take care of business, and then we worry about the second game. If we don't take care of things, then bale-wala din 'yung second game," he added.
Had La Salle lost to UST, they would have been eliminated from the Final 4 race. But their win, combined with Ateneo's triumph over Adamson, means that the Green Archers will instead play the Soaring Falcons in a knockout game for the last seat in the semifinals.
Making the win all the more special for Pumaren is that they got it done despite missing some key players. Schonny Winston had another cameo, playing less than three seconds. Michael Phillips missed the game as he has yet to be cleared by doctors.
Ahead of the contest, star rookie Kevin Quiambao felt under the weather and did not play as well.
"We're missing players again, and I told the guys that it's been a rough season for us. I don't think we played with a complete roster in all our games," said Pumaren.
"As I told the guys, my coaches, when will we get a break? When will we get a lucky break?" he also said.
Winston led La Salle in scoring after the first round, and Phillips and Quiambao combined to average over 20 points and nearly 17 rebounds per contest. Without them, Pumaren needed some of his less heralded players to step up, and the coach was proud to see them answer the call.
Evan Nelle still led the way, with a season-best 25 points. But Raven Cortez tallied 13 points, and Ben Phillips had eight points and six boards. The likes of Bright Nwankwo, Jan Macalalag and Aaron Buensalida also worked hard on the glass to complement the scoring of Nelle and Mark Nonoy.
"The boys hung tough out there, just a total team effort," said Pumaren. "I'm really proud of the boys, we've been missing guys, but they've been playing solid basketball in spite and despite of things na nangyayari sa team namin."
It was the unheralded Macalalag who put La Salle ahead for good, converting a baseline jumper with 1:51 left for a 71-69 lead. Nelle would take over from there to keep UST at bay.
"I wasn't ready that Kevin won't play. We were three men down. Coming to this game, when I got to the arena, I was so pumped up. Then hearing Kevin won't play, siyempre nakakababa ng morale di ba?" said Nelle.
"He was one of our main guys, but coach kept telling us in the dugout, next man up. That's what we did," he added. "So many people stepped up, Raven, JC, Mark, we all stepped up because it's a team effort."
It remains to be seen if La Salle will finally be at full strength on Sunday, when they play Adamson in a do-or-die contest for the last Final 4 berth. But Pumaren is hopeful that he will continue to get an inspired effort from the La Salle supporting cast, regardless of the availability of their top stars.
"[We] just gotta keep fighting and hopefully good things will happen to us," the veteran coach said.
UAAP Season 85 is streaming on iWantTFC every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.