A season that started with the stirring hope that this time around, failure will not be an option, once again ended in heartbreak of a recurring nightmare.
The Lady Archers entered the UAAP 78th season smarting from an unexpected elimination in the hands of the Far Eastern University (FEU) Lady Tamaraws in spite of having a twice-to-beat advantage. Buoyed by the return of Mythical-Five awardee Ara Abaca and a new system installed by a new head coach in Cholo Villanueva, the Archers had high hopes at the season’s onset.
An opening day loss to the Champions, National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs, seemed like a hiccup after the Lady Archers rebounded with a string of six consecutive victories to close the first round with a 6-1 win-loss record, putting them firmly in second place.
Coach Villanueva’s system seemed to be working well as the Archers won game after game throwing full-court presses and scoring off transitions baskets. Their half-court sets were anchored in an inside-outside game. The Lady Archers played an unselfish kind of basketball. Point-guard Camille Claro and point-forward Ara Abaca led the team in setting plays, never failing to give up the ball to their open teammates. With snipers in Bennette Revillosa, Alyanna Vergara, Ana Castillo, Claro and team captain Alyanna Ong to compliment Snow Peñarada and Abaca’s post-game, the Archers seemed primed for success.
A 6-1 record for a team in transition is impressive, however, not all those victories were easily won. The Archers barely escaped their Archrivals, the Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU) Lady Eagles with the slimmest of leads, 44-43. Fortunately, at the end of the day, a win is still a win. Entering the second round, the Archers became the favored team to go up against the Bulldogs in the finals. But like they always say, the ball is round and it’s still anyone’s game.
The Taft-based squad pushed their winning streak to a team-record twelve. They continued their game plan and used their strengths to put their opponents at a disadvantage. With every passing game during the streak, the team became more cohesive on both the offensive and defensive aspects of their game. In those moments, it was clear that La Salle was a contender. With every win, confidence was building in anticipation to their rematch against the Lady Bulldogs.
Having swept all their other opponents, the Archers slugged it out with NU in their last game in the elimination rounds, unfortunately losing the battle in the end. But in spite of their loss, the Archers’ confidence were not shaken because in the latter part of the game, they showed resilience and heart, even after losing Claro to an ankle injury. An inch there and a second more, they could’ve beaten the undefeated. So for the second year in a row, the Archers gained a twice-to-beat advantage and had the luxury of waiting for UST and ADMU to face each other in a rubber-match, which the Lady Eagles won.
The second round seemed like a looking glass reflection of the first. Six wins bookended by a second loss to the Bulldogs.
Lost in the euphoria of their twice-to-beat advantage, hardly anyone noticed that the Blue Eagles were making their own Cinderella run. The Eagles survived several elimination games to earn the right to face the Lady Archers. The strongest challenger faced Cinderella and the clock struck midnight for the Green & White.
In the first game, the Lady Archers showed their true form. Their signature full-court press pressured the Eagles and their offensive attacks kept their opponent on their heels. La Salle displayed a convincing first half and became complacent. The second half was a different story. The Katipunan-based squad turned the tables as they went on a 10-0 run led by Hazel Yam and Dancia Jose. From then, the Eagles took off. The Archers tried to rally but time ran out. Fortunately, the Archers live to fight another day, thanks to their twice-to-beat advantage.
With everything on the line, especially for the graduating players in Ong, Abaca, Ria Pineda and Fretzie Oyao, Coach Cholo Villanueva only had a few words to say a few seconds before the game: “I just want them to enjoy the game, compete on every point and try to win”. The Archers did try to compete Ateneo’s every possession as they went head to head, only trailing by a few points in the first half.
With only 20 more minutes left in their season, the Archers played with a sense of urgency as they forced a deadlock after the third frame. Unfortunately, the Lady Eagles proved to be the team of destiny this time around and the hope for a fairy-tale ending of the Lady Archers dissolved into a nightmare.