Before opening day, University of the Philippines (UP) big man Carl Tamayo had no comeback for Evan Nelle, who picked his La Salle squad as the favorite of the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament.
Instead, the 6-foot-7 Maroons star let his game do the talking. And his game spoke big words. Tamayo calmly buried two game-clinching free throws in the dying seconds as the Maroons opened its title-retention bid with a come-from-behind 72-69 win over the Archers on Saturday night at Mall of Asia Arena.
“If he (Nelle) believes that they are the best team, we respect that. We just did what we have to do to get the win,’’ said Tamayo, who finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds as he tortured the Green Archers anew, just as he did in last season’s Final Four.
And a warning to other teams: He isn’t just cooking the Carl Tamayo special exclusively for La Salle.
“It has nothing to do with facing La Salle. Our team has been building a culture where nobody should give up and [everyone] will fight to the end, regardless of who we face,’’ said the member of the Gilas Pilipinas national program.
Nelle had a narrow window of opportunity to back his preseason declaration, but the slippery guard fumbled amid a phalanx of UP defenders atop the arc and failed to launch a desperation shot.
Nelle actually pulled the Archers within one with a banked three and put Tamayo on the charity stripe on the ensuing play. Tamayo’s game-clinching free throws allowed the Maroons to bounce back after falling behind by double digits in the second quarter, where a dizzying spell of turnovers against La Salle’s dreaded press left them bewildered.
“I think we have to be more organized in our succeeding games. This is our first game, but there’s no reason for us to play in a situation like that,’’ said UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde.
Terrence Fortea added 15 points for the defending champions, who also trailed by double digits in the second half.
Malick Diouf was likewise instrumental in securing the win for Maroons, his pair of putbacks and successive defensive stops around the rim helping the Maroons erase the deficit halfway through the fourth.
Alex Winston led the Archers with 27 points while Nelle added nine points.
Meanwhile, University of Santo Tomas, garbed in a throwback jersey from the school’s UAAP sweep during the 1993 season, has found a new king tiger.
Nic Cabanero fired a career-high 33 points, including the insurance basket with 41.6 seconds left, to lift the Growling Tigers to a 69-60 win over the Adamson Falcons in the season opener.
Undaunted by a fading shot clock, Cabanero confidently swished a step-back jumper that created a five-point separation the Tigers needed in the closing seconds to kick off a season teeming with promise.
“My coaches have been giving me the confidence. They always tell me to stay calm and composed,’’ said Cabanero in Filipino. The sophomore was thrust into the leader’s role following the absence of some UST key players this season.
“I’m happy that I was able to help our team win our first game,’’ added the 6-foot-2 combo guard.
Cabanero immediately showed the stuff he’s made of right, rattling off 17 points in the first half before eventually going 13 of 18 from the field in 32 minutes of action.
“Any coach will give Nic the opportunity. There’s no doubt that he has the skills and could help us get a W,’’ said newly installed UST head coach Bal David, who inherited a newbie-laden team that is coming off a 3-11 record from last season.
“I prefer to be called an underdog because there will be less pressure on our end,’’ added David, the former PBA star and a vital cog in that 14-0 UST champion team back in 1993.
The Falcons tried to resuscitate their dwindling chances near the end, but bungled three attempts from afar, allowing the Tigers to seal Adamson’s downfall on the charity stripe.
Christian Manaytay and Paul Manalang split their free throws as the Falcons went into fouling frenzy before Cabanero iced the win with his own two freebies.
Lenda Douanga and Joshua Yerro had 13 points each for the Falcons, who chased Cabanero and the Tigers all game long before finally closing in on a Jerome Lastimosa three, 60-63, with a minute left.
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