UAAP coaches: It's La Salle's height vs. UST's heart

Chris Lagunzad
Can Karim Abdul contain Arnold Van Opstal? (George Calvelo/NPPA Images)

It’s height versus heart.

This will clearly be the compelling theme in the UAAP Season 76 men’s basketball finals showdown between the taller La Salle crew and the ‘never-say-die’ University of Santo Tomas squad, with the series opener set this Wednesday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

The Green Archers have emerged the odds-on favorites, buoyed by a plethora of skilled big men in 6-foot-7 Arnold Van Opstal, 6-foot-6 Norbert Torres and 6-foot-4 but wide-bodied rookie Jason Perkins.

That solid frontline gives La Salle a decisive edge in the best-of-three affair against the relatively smaller UST crew in the eyes of four other league coaches, namely Nash Racela of Far Eastern U, University of the East’s Boycie Zamar, Leo Austria of host Adamson and University of the Philippines’ Rey Madrid.

But taking the Growling Tigers lightly might backfire, especially with the way UST dethroned five-time champion Ateneo and overhauled a twice-to-beat disadvantage against top-seeded National U in the semifinals.

“It’s a tough series between a dominating team and a team that plays with all heart,” noted Racela, whose wards, the Tamaraws, succumbed to the Green Archers in their semifinals battle last week.

“La Salle has the size advantage which I think can be neutralized if (Karim) Abdul finds a way to stay on the court. But it’s hard to beat the machinery of La Salle,” he added.

Austria, the outgoing mentor of the Falcons, had the same observation, adding the Green Archers have clearly grasped the system of head coach Juno Sauler.

“May panapat sila kay Abdul. Mayroon talaga silang big men tapos may confidence pa sila dahil sa nine consecutive wins. Malaking bagay ‘yun,” he stressed. “Nakikita mo na well-motivated sila at iba na talaga ‘yung nilalaro nila. Na-define na rin kasi ‘yung roles ng bawat isa. Makikita mo na gutom na gutom na rin sila sa panalo.”

But Madrid refused to buy the same view, noting the Growling Tigers, although relatively small, have been relishing the underdog’s role while trying to redeem themselves from a disappointing finals stint against the Blue Eagles last year.

“They have the best mixture of an import and locals minus a point guard. It’s a potent mix,” he said. “La Salle is a complete team and also has a Twin Tower combination (in Van Opstal and Torres) which is supported by Perkins. Pero grabe ang firepower ng UST. Matindi ang capacity nila to score in bunches. ‘Yan naman ang nagpapanalo sa basketball–paramihan ng puntos. May momentum na rin talaga sila ngayon.”

Madrid also lauded the effort of head coach Juno Sauler and his coaching staff for turning La Salle into a potent force despite a short period of time since taking over the post from Gee Abanilla, who currently handles Petron Blaze in the pro league.

But under the brighter lights and opposite a champion coach like UST’s Pido Jarencio, Madrid stressed “experience” will come into play. “Iba ‘yung experience factor lalo na kapag naging down the wire ‘yung laro,” he said.

The Tigers have also showed similarities to a former UST team that enabled Jarencio to clinch the men’s title right in his debut in 2006.

“Alam nila paano lalaruin ‘yung kalaban. Nothing to lose ang mindset nila at dyan magaling si coach Pido. Alam niya kung paano laruin ang ganyang sitwasyon,” Madrid added.

Zamar, meanwhile, is convinced the series “will boil down to maturity and mental toughness. La Salle has a very deep bench but UST has a bench na laban lang ng laban.”