De La Salle University was on the verge of falling short of its preseason expectations for UAAP Season 85.
Needing a victory vs. University of Sto. Tomas just to have a shot at the Final Four, the Green Archers found themselves behind by nine, 60-69, with under nine minutes remaining.
And then Evan Nelle came along. He came through. He came up big.
The primetime playmaker fired seven of his 25 points in the last four minutes, including cool, calm, and collected four charities in the last minute. He also added four rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block to his scoring output.
“Well, he’s gotta walk the talk, right?” exclaimed head coach Derick Pumaren, with a laugh, as they await whether or not they’d play for a spot in the Final Four.
Their fate depends on an Adamson University loss to Ateneo de Manila University in the ongoing game.
In the preseason, La Salle was a trendy pick for the Final Four – and even the Finals – after a strong showing in the leadup to the tournament that included a championship in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and a runner-up finish in the 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup.
Nelle even went so far as to say that defending champion University of the Philippines, as well as the former three-peat titlist Blue Eagles, wasn’t necessarily the team to beat.
“I really think we’re the favorites because we bonded. The way our preseason games concluded, we really showed what we can do as a team,” he exclaimed in the preseason press conference.
“So yeah, we’re no. 1.”
After he said that, his teammates, his coaches, weren’t walking back the statement. They stopped short of doubling down, but they weren’t disputing it either.
Come the contests themselves, however, the Green Archers felt disappointed at the same time. They scored triumphs over UP, Ateneo, and National University – the top three teams heading into the playoffs – while also getting swept by the resurgent University of the East.
At the end of the eliminations, their fate wasn’t in their hands. Their lives, funnily enough, were linked to the success of their fiercest foe Blue Eagles.
Still, Nelle wasn’t taking back what he had said. Through and through, in his eyes, La Salle was the team to beat.
“I still stand (by) that. I still believe we’re the best team,” he expressed. “So many things happened.
“We f****d up, but I still stand (by) that. I still believe we’re a really strong team.”
Pumaren forwarded a more nuanced take. Indeed, the Green Archers had a championship-caliber lineup – if they were at full strength.
“I think we’re a better team if we got a complete lineup. Sad to say, we were not able to play to our potential as a team because of injuries, suspensions,” he detailed. “We were not able to play to our potential kasi ‘di nga kumpleto as expected.
“Maybe Evan said that because he (can) say that when we’re complete.”
In the tournament, La Salle had to overcome the absences of Nelle, Schonny Winston, Mike Phillips, Kevin Quiambao, and Schonny Winston. Even more, Winston was the MVP frontrunner after the first round before being forced to the sidelines due to a calf injury.
Without a doubt, on paper, the Green Archers had anything and everything needed to match up with the best of the best. From bigs to guards, from energy to experience, they had it all. Now, they’re just hoping for one more shot at proving it.
No, Evan Nelle didn’t jinx La Salle’s chances for the Final Four or the Finals – or a long-awaited, much-wanted championship, no less.
For him, their hopes weren’t up to Ateneo or Adamson. They still have time to live up to their lofty billing in the preseason. There’s not necessarily much of it left.
But there’s still time, there’s still a possibility that La Salle, indeed, winds up no. 1.