UAAP: Painful Final Four exit fuels Evan Nelle, La Salle in Season 85 bid
MANILA, Philippines — After enduring sleepless nights and repeatedly watching the film of their previous heartbreaking Final Four defeat, Evan Nelle believes La Salle has what it takes to reach the top of the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament.
Last May, the Green Archers were four minutes away from reaching the UAAP Season 84 Finals, holding a double-digit lead over the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons in the fourth quarter of their do-or-die Final Four game.
But Carl Tamayo’s heroics broke the hearts and shattered the championship hopes of La Salle, which still haunts Nelle and his team.
“I can’t sleep for weeks. And then, up to now, when you watch film, I would still watch the game, I would still see how it hurts. It still pains me,” admitted Nelle shortly after the league press conference on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
“That’s the one that hurts the most, how we lost. We were already up, 14 points in the last four, five minutes, and we still lost. Every time we have bad practices, every time we don’t wanna practice, coach says we were like three minutes, 30 seconds away from getting to the Finals,” he added.
The La Salle guard said they are taking it as a motivation to redeem themselves this season.
“Coming into the season, you can use that as motivation. You have to look forward (because) it’s a totally different story with the given preparation, with the given team,” Nelle said.
During the press conference, the transferee from San Beda made a bold statement, saying they are the No. 1 team this season, despite UP and Ateneo being the consensus teams to beat for the coaches.
“I would look at my team as favorites. What will it be if I think we’re gonna lose the championship, or like, not make it to the Final 4, not make it to the championship? What would that be coming into the season?” the former NCAA mythical member said. “I have full confidence with my guys. I really trust our system, I really trust our camaraderie now. That’s how I see it.”
La Salle coach Derick Pumaren, who brought back the school in the Final Four last season after a five-year drought, is parading a strong line-up, bannered by Nelle, Michael Phillips, Schonny Winston, and rookie Kevin Quiambao, amid the departure of their former captain Justine Baltazar.
Winning the PBA D-League Aspirants’ Cup, finishing third in the FilOil EcoOil preseason cup, and training in Japan with this roster built Nelle’s confidence to say that they are a team to beat, too.
“I really think the offseason, the kind of regular offseason, was a big help. We had more preseason games and we got to have like, a feel for each other a little bit better than the bubble,” he said. “We got to face real competition, our other foes in the UAAP. Even our trip to Japan which bonded us really well, so that’s what I think helped us, helped me see our team as way better than last season.”
Nelle, who transferred to Taft two years ago, hopes to repay the school’s trust by winning the championship.
“Last season was an adjustment for sure. But, how I see this now is, all we have to do is win. I really don’t care about the awards. All I just want is the championship. Repay the trust of La Salle community, our managers, our coaches, our teammates, people who look up to us,” he said.
The bold statement he made will be tested right away as La Salle opens its campaign against its Final Four tormentor, UP, on Saturday at 4 p.m.
“We’re looking forward to UP, we wanna win it. It’s one game. We have 14 games and it’s a really long season. So we’re here to improve, get better, peak at the right time,” Nelle said. “But we’re here to win it all. We’re not here to lose any game. I don’t think any team plans to lose. So it’s better to have a target on our backs so we won’t be complacent or relaxed.”