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The Tigers by numbers: How UST rises to the top

Despite being considered underdogs, the Growling Tigers surpassed all the expectations to secure a twice-to-beat advantage  in the Final Four. Bien Lazarte (file photo)                                                   
By Alex Cerado 

IF WE deliberate about the biggest surprise in the UAAP men’s basketball this year, there’s no doubt our argument will end up with the UST Growling Tigers.

Coming off a forgettable Season 77 under rookie coach Bong Dela Cruz, no one expected that the España cagers would eventually go miles with their performance.

Besting only University of the Philippines (UP) and Adamson University twice while splitting their games against runner-up Far Eastern University (FEU), UST ended up sixth with a dismal 5-9 win-loss record after back-to-back Finals’ appearance at the helm of coach Pido Jarencio.

With all eyes on powerhouse teams FEU, De La Salle University, Ateneo de Manila University, and defending champion National University in winning the Season 78 title, the Tigers, without the fierce Aljon Mariano, showed their fangs which left everybody in a state of shock.

Even most sports analysts predicted UST to end up fifth or sixth with six wins, while UP having the lead with a retooled coaching staff.

Despite not being strong on paper, the Tigers let their game do the talking.

Anatomy of games

In their opening game last Sept. 5, the Tigers battled toe-to-toe against cellar dweller Adamson Soaring Falcons and managed to win in a close 70-64 duel.

There was nothing really special on that game, maybe except for Ed Daquioag’s 28-point performance.

Just when everybody was expecting a lopsided FEU-UST match, the biggest surprise came along the way.

The Tigers shrugged off a slow start and surged in the end game to upset the Tams, 72-71. 

The Tigers later defeated UP to start the season with a 3-0 slate.

They later suffered their first loss to NU, in a heartbreaking 54-55 match with the triumph almost in their bag in the final minute.

The setback did not stop them in getting better.

They later ignited a three-game winning streak to end up the first round with league-best 6-1, including come-from-behind victories against La Salle and Ateneo. More than the impressive record, they earned the monicker as the “comeback kids” this season.

The victorious run continued to five after the Tigers repeat over La Salle and staged a vengeance to NU, their lone loss in the first round.

The 8-1 UST later met a streaking Ateneo de Manila University, who handed them their second defeat, 74-80, courtesy of unlikely hero Arvin Tolentino who limited Ferrer to a 1-of-11 field goal shooting.

They bounced back versus UP, but later subdued by an upset-conscious UE.

The last two games became crucial for UST.

Last Nov. 7, in what was dubbed as the “Preview of the Finals,” the cagers in black-and-yellow jersey emerged victorious and swept their main rival, FEU, 85-76, in another come-from-behind fashion from 14 points down.

Four days later, the Tigers secured the twice-to-beat advantage after walloping Adamson, 78-63.

They finished the elimination round with 11 wins and three losses, their best record since 1995, and the second year of the historic four-peat era under Aric Del Rosario. They just need to wait for the remaining games to determine whether they will get the top seed or the second spot.

Numbers don’t lie

For any remarkable performance of one team, there are always numbers to back it up.

UST, who was seventh (22%) in three-point shooting percentage in Season 77, rose to the top with 31% this season.

They made league-best 89 triples in 14 games this year, way better from 59 in 2014.
Free throw shooting likewise became a factor for most of their games.

Being an intimidation in offense, the Tigers led all the teams from the charity line.

They averaged 17.7 points per game from free throws, and made 249 from 364 attempts. They are number one this season with 68.4 percent. In their previous campaign, they only made 196 charities.

In limiting turnovers, UST also stood out with 16.2 errors a game, the lowest in the league with a turnover mean of 18.7.

The emphatic elimination round for the Tigers was likewise supported by notable outputs in other departments.

They are runner-up in field goal shooting after 14 matches (39.6%), not far from FEU’s 41.3 in 12 games. With UE taking the top spot in steals with 6.8 in every match, the Tigers are running second with 4.8. Thanks to the intensity of their point guard Marvin Lee, who led UST with 1.14 spg.

They are also third in blocks with 45 overall this season, while racking up 11.9 assists per game in the fifth place.

Everything was perfect for UST, except for one skill which they need to improve come the Final Four playoffs.

Under Jarencio in grabbing the rebounds, they are third in Season 75 (44.2 rebounds per game/rpg) and first in Season 76 (47.8 rpg).

This year, they were dead last in UAAP with 40.2 boards per outing.

The España triumvirate

The departure of Aljon Mariano may be big, but veterans and fifth-year players Ferrer, Daquioag and Karim Abdul stepped up their games for their last chance to win a championship.

Ferrer, who only averages 8.95 points per game (ppg) and 5.55 rpg in four years, finished the eliminations this season with an MVP-caliber showing of 17.93 ppg and 8.21 rpg.

But more than the offensive contributions was Ferrer’s leadership inside the court after being assigned as captain in his final year.

On the other hand, Daquioag showed a massive improvement after playing behind the shadows of Jeric Fortuna, Jeric Teng and Aljon Mariano for the past years.

The Ilocos native chalked up 16.43 ppg, 5.57 rpg and 2.21 apg in 2015, a far-cry from 7.17 ppg and 2.58 rpg in Season 77. He also had his career-best 34-point explosion against UE.

UST’s reliable center Karim Abdul meanwhile, who struggled in their first seven games, got back his numbers in the second round after two consecutive 20-point performances.

The three-time Mythical Five center tallied 15.33 ppg, 10.66 rpg and 1.8 blocks per outing/bpg for the previous three seasons.

This year, his number dipped a little bit with 12.64 ppg, 8.43 rpg and 1.21 bpg.

Together, the trio combined for 47 markers, more than half of Tigers’ 73.8 average in every match.

Louie Vigil, and rookies Lee and Mario Bonleon provided the support in UST’s 11 victories, chipping in 9.29, 6.21 and 4.46 points per outing, respectively.

It may be a waiting game for UST as the elimination round will end up on Nov. 21. There’s even a possibility of playoffs for the number two and four spots.

But nevertheless, the Tigers will surely be hungry for the elusive championship that they last tasted in 2006. 

Follow him on Twitter: @alexcerado