It’s not as if his game-long brilliance wasn’t noticed by everyone at the Mall of Asia Arena but with the score tied at 76-all with 30 seconds remaining, La Salle’s third-year player Justine Baltazar needed to produce one more basket in order give DLSU head coach Louie Gonzales his maiden UAAP win.
With the game on the line and with only two seconds left on the shot clock, the first-year La Salle tactician drew up a play gave that Baltazar a good look from the left baseline: a 20-plus foot jumper that turned out to be the go-ahead basket.
According to Gonzales: “Actually, siguro sa practice, mga 100 times ko nang naitakbo talaga iyon; na alam ko naman (with) Justine here, sa start palang ng season sinabi ko na na he’ll play a big role (this year). Iyong last play na iyon, sinabi ko talaga sa (kanya) na ‘pag nakuha mo, tira mo na. Good thing na sumama lahat kay Aljun (Melecio).”
Whether making the Bulldogs pay for leaving him open at crunch time, cleaning up his teammates’ misses to the tune of eight offensive rebounds, hitting a three-pointer, and even performing a “Dream Shake” against NU’s Issa Gaye, Balti was magnificent all game long and finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, and a block.
Slow start against an unpredictable team
After scoring 14 and 11 in the first two quarters in their last game against FEU, La Salle had another opening quarter to forget as they were outscored 16-25 after the first 10 minutes of play. Four turnovers caused by NU’s 1-2-2 half court trap and making only six field goals had the Green Archers trailing early.
“Going into the game, hindi ko talaga alam kung anong iisipin kong preparation (against) NU. Knowing (NU head coach) Jamike (Jarin) and because of the typhoon last weekend, naiba-iba yung schedule; and playing against Jamike for the last three years, alam kong marami siyang ibabato talaga. Especially very evident noong first half noong nag-struggle talaga kami, pero good thing itong mga player ko, they don’t mind what’s happening inside, they just stick it out with each other.”
Despite being cold from rainbow territory (1-17) in the first half, the Archers clawed their way back into the game by pounding the offensive glass and getting more second-chance points (12-6). Turning up the defense, the Green and White squad limited NU to just 13 second quarter points for a 35-38 halftime score.
“We started slow kasi hindi namin inexpect (sa) first half (na) iyon iyung ibabato ng NU sa amin, pero noong halftime naka-adjust kami para malaro namin yung second half,” explained Melecio.
Pivotal third quarter
Not only did the Taft-based quad outscore NU, 30-21, in the third, they also showed more composure against their younger opponents and displayed championship experience to post a 65-59 lead after the third quarter.
From a 55-all tie, snipper Jollo finally found his stroke and sandwiched two treys between a runner from opening-game top scorer Santi Santillan for an eight-point lead. However, NU refused to buckle and was still within striking distance throughout the fourth quarter.
In the last minute though, La Salle’s poise and maturity made all the difference. After Balti’s basket, the Bulldogs couldn’t inbound the ball properly after a timeout and was called for a five-second violation. Two free throws from guard Andrei Caracut sealed the win and enabled the Green Archers to level their win-loss record (1-1) with five other teams after four playdates.
Aside from getting a big monkey off his shoulders, DLSU head coach Louie Gonzales also stretched La Salle’s winning streak against NU to five, dating back to the first round of Season 79. “Kailangan ma-overcome muna namin yung sarili namin tsaka lang kami puwedeng mag-compete. So iyon ang tinitignan ko sa kanila throughout the game, actually.”
Lost in Balti’s limelight and Melecio’s bounce back after a miserable outing against FEU is rookie Joaquin Manuel who provided energy and hustle throughout the game. Through his seven-point, six-rebound, one-assist, and one-steal outing is not eye-popping, the team needs every bit of contribution from everyone especially when big man Taane Samuel is scheduled to have surgery this week after sustaining a Jones fracture last Sept. 9, 2018.
Fellow rookie Brandon Bates is also slowly rounding out to form and gave a better performance by finishing with four points, eight rebounds, and a block.
The Green Archers will try to limit the league’s top scorer Alvin Pasaol and his UE Red Warriors next Sunday, 3PM at the Filoil Flying V Arena.
Animo La Salle!