Tomorrow afternoon, the National University (NU) Bulldogs may have to kiss their Final Four hopes goodbye. The harshest thing about it is that they may not even have to play for their fate to be decided.
Should Ateneo de Manila University win against the De La Salle University in the game preceding NU’s battle with the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers at the Moro Lorenzo Football Field, the Bulldogs will be formally eliminated from the Final Four race. It will come as a huge blow for NU, who had set their sights on the trophy, a season after narrowly missing the semis.
An unfortunate week
Their objective had not been far-fetched as not so long ago, the Bulldogs had been considered strong playoff contenders. They had been sitting in fourth due to superior goal difference in a three-way tie for fourth alongside the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons.
The league then took a long break for the Holy Week, which served as a challenge for the streaking teams to maintain momentum. While the Katipunan teams were able to stay sharp on the other side of the pause, the Bulldogs were unable to keep pace with them.
NU were then due to tackle last season’s top three. It has been a challenging week for the Bulldogs, who only managed to avoid defeat once, in a goalless draw against the reigning champions. They were hard done by in defeats to La Salle and UP, which both came in heartbreaking fashion. “Breaks ng game. Alam naman natin na back and forth ‘yung game. We had chances also kaya lang nadali kami,” Laranas assessed after the loss to UP. The Bulldogs fell to a second half Gadia penalty. A week before, they would have defeated the Green Archers had it not been for a collapse in second half added time.
Making it count
Aside from the lapses, a concern for Laranas is the team’s finishing, as it is where they find difficulty against the top teams. Although not lacking opportunities, the Bulldogs seem to convert very few of them. Against the league’s top five this season, NU have only registered seven goals in eight games played. It is a stark contrast to the 15 goals scored out of the four matches they have had versus the bottom two teams.
Laranas finds it quite ironic that the team is struggling to convert when they place emphasis on finishing during training sessions. “Nandiyan naman eh kaso hindi lang siya consistent. Kung ano pa ‘yung focus namin… sayang,” he went on to say. Approaching the last two games, Laranas is planning to instill the aggressiveness to his players as they hope to salvage their ailing campaign.
Team captain and the league’s leading scorer Paolo Salenga, meanwhile, laments the team’s inability to sustain the focus for 90 minutes in their recent games. “Kapag bandang huli, parang bumibitaw kami. Parang kulang maglaro. Hindi kami determinadong manalo. Kulang ‘yung puso, although nakikita ko naman sa teammates ko na naghahardwork kami,” the graduating skipper elaborated. Failing to solve their problems in a timely manner, the Bulldogs are now left with plenty to do; and those may not even be sufficient in keeping their heads above water.
Avoiding history repeating itself
Time is running out for the Bulldogs. Coach Lem Laranas’ team now sits in sixth, four points adrift of the fourth-placed Blue Eagles. They face a case of déjà vu, as their fate is no longer in their hands.
Like last season, where a loss to La Salle led the Bulldogs to rely on the result of Ateneo against a then-eliminated UST, NU will have to do the same as they get to witness the La Salle-Ateneo game. If Ateneo fail to beat La Salle, the Bulldogs’ chances of entering the post-season are still alive. They would then need a victory against the Tigers. Anything else would simply eliminate them.
Salenga is well aware of the permutations and has vowed to stay committed to the end, also urging his teammates to do the same. “Ibibigay ko na ‘yung best ko kasi tingin ko may chance kami. Now or never, diba? Madali lang sabihin, kailangan naming trabahuin,” the captain stated. It is surely a tough ask, but all is not lost just yet.
It’s safe to say that luck hasn’t been on NU’s side for much of Season 78. They failed to win games they believed they should have won, even losing some in the process. As the season winds down, the Bulldogs hope that the breaks favor them this time around.