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Hell of a ride — La Salle train reaches UAAP victory lane

photograph by Joey sanchez Mendoza for the daily tribune @tribunephl_joey DE La Salle University celebrates after clinching their first title in seven years following a 73-69 win over University of the Philippines in Game 3 of Season 86 UAAP men’s basketball tournament.

A roller coaster of a season is an understatement.

De La Salle University’s long journey back to the throne of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball after seven years is not for the faint of heart.

The Green Archers’ ride with a new coach on the wheel experienced early bumps in an already rough Season 86 road.

But the fire in the eyes of the Green Archers, led by do-it-all forward Kevin Quiambao, heady graduating guard Evan Nelle and workhorse Mike Phillips, did not diminish.

Not even a 30-point drubbing at the hands of the well-experienced University of the Philippines to start their first finals appearance in six years did not put doubt into the hearts of head coach Topex Robinson’s wards.

In fact, it only fueled the green and white freight train to reach its destination back into victory lane and a 10th overall crown.

La Salle fought back in Game 2 of the best-of-three championship series, burying the Fighting Maroons by 22 points.

Then, Season and Finals Most Valuable Player Quiambao unleashed his best game of the series to lead the Green Archers to a 73-69 win in Game 3 last Wednesday witnessed by a record crowd of 25,193 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

“It’s just a great feeling we won the championship despite all those who doubted us in the first round. But look where we are now, we are the champions,” an emotional Quiambao said. La Salle did go off the title radar with its shaky start of a 3-3 win-loss record in the first round. But the Green Archers led by Quiambao’s amazing two triple-doubles — the most in the Final Four era — rallied them to eight consecutive victories to eventually end up at the No. 2 spot behind UP.

Twice-to-beat La Salle cruised past National University in the Final Four for a ninth straight win only to go crashing back to Earth when the Fighting Maroons, who were in a third straight finals stint, crushed it by 30, 97-67.

But La Salle held on to each other. They got each other’s backs.

Even Robinson, who had lost three title series in the National Collegiate Athletic Association with San Sebastian College and Lyceum of the Philippines University before, got assurance from his squad that their campaign wouldn’t end up in another heartbreak.

“You know, these guys are really giving me the courage to move on even if I’m questioning myself,” the amiable Robinson said.

“That first game loss was really challenging for me. It kind of asked me if I’m really made for coaching but every time I see these guys, it gives me the courage to move forward because you know I draw my strength from them.”

“Every time I see them, they challenge me, they check on me if I’m okay and that’s really something that’s really priceless for me as opposed to you know just not to be their coach but to be their friend. That’s a big thing for me.”

Now, Robinson has joined Franz Pumaren, Juno Sauler and Aldin Ayo in the elite club of La Salle coaches who won UAAP titles in their respective maiden seasons.

“I guess putting your name in that list is really an honor for me. This is my first championship as a college head coach after so many tries, and again, you just don’t want to give up. You know, when you doubt yourself and you don’t have the courage to move forward,” he said.

For graduating Nelle, it was a surreal moment to finally get vindication after La Salle missed the Final Four last year in a disappointing playoff loss to Adamson University. It was the same season he got criticized for his prediction that the Green Archers would end up No. 1.

“It’s funny, actually. You know, whatever, you have to back it up. Last year I did not. I think this year, I did,” Nelle said.

It was Nelle’s second college career title after winning one in the NCAA playing for San Beda University before transferring to La Salle.

“I was a champion in my first year (with San Beda) but I barely played. In my last year, I got a lot of minutes and I’m a champion again. It’s kind of… it’s a feeling of vindication. The way I put it. I got to contribute to my team. It feels so good. I don’t know. I don’t have perfect words for it,” Nelle said.

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