Lyceum of the Philippines University appears to be in top form as it begins the NCAA Season 99 Seniors Basketball Tournament, having defeated both of the final top two teams from last season.
The Pirates secured an 85-81 victory over the College of Saint Benilde in their season opener on Sunday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. Then, on Wednesday, they further bolstered their confidence by outdueling the defending champion Colegio de San Juan de Letran with a 70-69 win, exacting revenge after being eliminated by them in the Final Four during Season 98.
At the heart of their early-season success stands third-year big man Shawn Umali, who has been a dominating presence for Lyceum in their first two games.
In Season 98, Umali averaged just 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, contributing to the Pirates’ Final Four appearance.
In his first two games of Season 99, the 6-foot-3 former Letran Squire doubled his scoring output from last season, tallying 14 points against Benilde and a team-high 15 points against Letran.
Umali says he takes it upon himself, as a veteran of the team, to be a calming presence for the rest of his squad.
“Lalo na sa mga mahahalagang laro, kami ang mga beterano sa laro na ito,” said the player from Tondo known for his strong physical play.
“Wala na yung mga beterano namin kaya parang kami na ang nandito para sa team, kami na ang naggu-guide.”
Umali’s reliability has already proven crucial in the closing moments of the first two games of the season. Against Benilde, he sank both game-clinching free throws with seven seconds left as the Blazers attempted a comeback.
What’s even more impressive is that the Pirates’ big man shot only 55 percent from the charity stripe in Season 98, yet he remained unfazed in the face of the jeering Benilde crowd, even taunting them after the first free throw swished through the net.
“Bagong-gawa lang ‘yon sa amin, hindi nakaka-shoot ng free throw,” joked coach Gilbert Malabanan after the game.
As Letran began to pull away in their closely contested match, Umali sank a clutch three-pointer to bring the game back within one possession, with the score at 67-66. Umali had only made four three-pointers throughout Season 98, but he came through when the Pirates needed him the most.
Early in Season 99, Umali has shown that he is ready to elevate his game whenever necessary, regardless of what the statistics indicate.