By Gio Gloria
Those with nothing to lose are often the most dangerous. Of course, playing for certain purposes like family, alma mater, and country can raise the level of play, but having no agenda can give teams the ultimate chance to fill in the void with their potential.
Wins were hard to come by for the UE Red Warriors. Each season felt like they were starting from the top again both on and off the court and thus, each succeeding season came with lower and lower expectations. In UAAP Season 85, though, that was not the case.
The Red Warriors won three of their first five games, with their best win so far this season coming in the second round against the UST Growling Tigers, who they went on a barrage against enroute to an 81-51 win.
Things were looking towards a tight battle towards the Final Four deep into the second round, but some tough losses down the stretch doomed UE’s chances at making the postseason. With that out of sight, the Red Warriors instead focused on ending Season 85 on a high note and did so while putting a dent on the DLSU Green Archers’ Final Four chances.
UE’s five wins in Season 85 eclipsed their win total for the past two seasons, finishing with their best single-season win total since Season 77 back in 2014, when the Red Warriors went 9-5 and lost to the eventual champion NU Bulldogs in a playoff for the last Final Four spot. Much of UE’s success can be attributed to how their bench has been the most productive offensively in Season 85, but that also comes largely due to the shuffling within the lineups.
No Red Warrior started all 14 games, with only Harvey Pagsanjan (13), Nick Paranada (11), CJ Payawal (10), and leading scorer Luis Villegas (10) having started at least 10 games. Meanwhile, Kyle Paranada, who was UE’s second leading scorer at 11.6 points per game, has come off the bench in all the 14 games he has played in.
Shooting has been the Red Warriors’ best asset in Season 85, as their UAAP-best 33.8 perimeter points in the game and the 30.5 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line (2nd best in the league behind the UP Fighting Maroons) has not only kept them in games, but it has also helped compensate for UE’s sub-par efforts in fastbreak situations and in getting to the free throw line.
The Red Warriors being a perimeter-oriented team (to a fault) also reflects on the defensive end, where their low rebounding and blocks (Ange Kouame and Adama Faye have blocked more shots per game than UE’s 1.7 blocks per game.) coupled with the league-high 73.4 points per game they allow indicating a soft interior defense. Teams have no problems scoring inside, making it hard for the Red Warriors to generate fastbreak and second chance points.
UE head coach Jack Santiago has had to figure out the ideal rotation even when he has learned to rely on the likes of Villegas, Payawal, and the Paranada brothers as Season 85 has gone on. The success (relative to the Red Warriors’ recent history) has certainly helped him redeem what was a turbulent Season 84 that saw him sit out multiple games after accusations of instructing UE to harm then Fighting Maroon Ricci Rivero. With that issue now behind him, Santiago and the Red Warriors were able to minimize the distractions for Season 85.
Moving forward, Santiago will have to look for ways to replace the likes of Villegas, Payawal, and Nick Paranada, who all have used up their playing years. It’ll be tough to find a big man who can do a lot of everything like Villegas, but the former long-time assistant coach at Adamson and DLSU will have to find someone who can make big shots in crucial stretches in the game. Of course, the likes of Kyle Paranada and Pagsanjan have the experience to do so, but Santiago can also look outside while the latter two continue to work their way towards that goal.
The UE Red Warriors of recent years had been acting as if they were playing with house money, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in UAAP Season 85. A Final Four was within reach until the second to the last day of the preliminaries, and with a campaign like this to build on, who’s to say that they won’t find themselves in the big stage in Season 86?