Needing someone to support J-Jay Alejandro, Matt Salem finally showed up, providing the spark the National University Bulldogs in their 77-70 win over the skidding University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, Sunday afternoon at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
NU ended their first round campaign at 3-4, holding the tiebreaker advantage over UP for solo fifth. Moreover, this is the Bulldogs’ first win since their 94-84 victory over the UST Growling Tigers last September 20.
“I just want to commend the fighting heart of these two young men seated beside, [Issa] Gaye and [Matt] Salem,” said a relieved Jamike Jarin. “I personally just have no words to describe these young men. They’re a big factor in today’s victory.”
After a horrid outing against Ateneo last September 30, Salem bounced back big with his season-high 21 points to go along with 10 rebounds, while Issa Gaye also broke out of his personal struggles, finishing with 13 points and eight rebounds.
“I always challenge our players, not only Matt, we always challenge these young men to achieve excellence,” added Jarin, who won the NCAA Championship with San Beda a year ago. “We just try hard and try to be perfect, whatever happens, whatever the results might be, as long as you give it your best, you can tell yourself that you won.”
And the two proved pivotal in the final frame, finally giving Alejandro the pieces he needed to close out games.
Tied at 60-all with 6:50 left, Alejandro and Salem powered NU to a 7-2 rally, with the latter knocking down a corner triple. Gaye then knocked down a long jumper and a free throw to give NU a 70-65 lead with 3:06 remaining.
“All the losses, we had a chance to get that victory, but unfortunately, we ran out of time. We ran out of time. So hopefully again, like what I said, we needed the experience,” said Jarin.
Desiderio was able to knock down his second triple of the quarter, while an overanxious Gaye was called for goaltending on Ibra Ouattara’s attempt to knot things up at 70-all with 1:34 left. But NU were not to be denied, making the end game stops. Alejandro knocked down the go-ahead basket 18 seconds later, while Salem provided the dagger with another corner triple to seal the win.
“Well, it’s no secret right now, and I know you won’t mind, Matt Salem has been struggling all throughout, scoring-wise. Defensively, he’s average. But I told him for us to really make a push this season, he needs to overachieve,” Jarin remarked about the NU captain, who had been averaging a disappointing 6.5 points prior to this game.
Alejandro once again filled up the stat sheet with 12 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.
UP had been in control of the game up until the third frame.
With 7:55 left in the third frame and with UP up 41-39, lead floor general Jun Manzo went for a breakaway layup. However, Alejandro challenged the Cebuano rookie, who landed awkwardly on his right ankle. Making matters worse was a trailing Issa Gaye, who accidentally stepped on the same ankle. Manzo did not return to the game but was seen jogging in the hallway of the arena.
Desiderio paced UP with 15 points on a 33 percent clip. Javi Gomez de Liano added 10 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, while Ouattara hauled down 18 rebounds.
NU 77 – Salem 21, Gaye 13, Alejandro 12, Joson 6, Diputado 5, Tibayan 4, Yu 3, Abatayo 3, Mosqueda 2, Morido 2, Aquino 2, Bartlett 2, Flores 2, Cauilan 0, Lastimosa 0, Rangel 0
UP 70 – Desiderio 15, Dario 11, Gomez de Liano Ja 10, Lim 7, Ouattara 6, Manzo 6, Lao 6, Prado 5, Gomez de Liano Ju 4, Vito 0, Ricafort 0
Quarterscores: 18-21, 33-38, 56-53, 77-70