For two years, Justine Baltazar waited patiently for his time in the spotlight.
In his first two years with the De La Salle University, the 6-foot-7 big man played behind Cameroonian powerhouse Ben Mbala, and thus had to settle for limited minutes.
With Mbala taking his talents abroad, however, Baltazar’s time has finally come – and the former Juniors Finals Most Valuable Player is shining under the bright lights of the UAAP. He was the hero for the Green Archers in their first win of the UAAP Season 81 Men’s Basketball Tournament, and then served as the pillar of strength that propelled them to back-to-back victories.
Against the fancied National University Bulldogs last Wednesday, Baltazar had a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds in just under 27 minutes of action.
Most importantly, he nailed the tough baseline jumper that gave the Green Archers a 78-76 lead with 28 seconds to play. They would go on to shock the Bulldogs, 80-76, for their first win of Season 81.
Four days later, Baltazar scored 16 points, grabbed 14 boards, and blocked three shots to power La Salle to an 82-72 triumph over the University of the East Red Warriors.
For his efforts, the young center was recognized as the Chooks-to-Go/UAAP Press Corps Player of the Week.
“Trabaho lang kami sa training, at saka sa game,” the soft-spoken Baltazar said after their win over UE, which gave them a share of second place. “Sabi ni coach, huwag kaming mag-relax kahit UE kalaban namin.”
La Salle coach Louie Gonzalez fully expected Baltazar to shine in Season 81 and the coach is thrilled that the big man is responding to the challenge given to him.
“Ngayon, china-challenge ko siya. Noong January pa lang, and now na talagang nailagay na siya sa limelight, it’s a change of lifestyle for him,” said Gonzalez. “It can’t be only na naglalaro siya ng basketball – he also has to take care of himself, and he has to take care of his nutrition, rest, and image.
“I know this kid was just waiting for his time. And this is his time.”
After three games, Baltazar is averaging a double-double of 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds, along with 1.7 blocks per game for La Salle.
The 21-year-old Baltazar beat teammate Aljun Melecio, Adamson University’s Jerrick Ahanmisi, and Far Eastern University’s Prince Orizu for the award given by print and online writers covering the league.