DE LA Salle-Zobel star Aljun Melecio took a cheap shot on his mouth then let his game do the talking at the expense of National U.
The 5-foot-9 Melecio took charge in the second half as the Junior Archers finally cut the towering Bullpups down to size on Friday afternoon, carving out a morale-boosting 71-60 victory in Game 2 to stay alive in their UAAP Season 78 juniors basketball titular showdown at the Filoil-Flying V Arena in San Juan.
Melecio pumped in nine of his 14 points in their decisive charge in the third canto and accounted for a game-best nine assists while playmaker Marco Sario tallied a team-high 16 markers and forward MR Romero produced a double-double of 14 markers and 10 rebounds as La Salle-Zobel bounced back from a 58-78 loss in the series opener last week.
Forward John Lloyd Clemente sizzled with a game-high 25 points, 14 of them coming in the third, and he single-handedly tried to bring NU back to life but eventually lost steam, causing the Bullpups to absorb their first setback after 15 victories this season.
Game 3 is set on March 4 also at the San Juan-based venue, with the thrice-to-beat Bullpups out to seal their third title in four years on their second try and the Junior Archers looking to drag the series into a winner-take-all showdown.
After formally receiving his season MVP plum earlier, Melecio groped for form in the first half against NU’s swarming defense and even absorbed an inadvertent elbow to the face from Bullpups defender Joshua Jugar during the waning moments of the second frame, with the score tied at 30-apiece.
Instead of getting frustrated, Melecio showed up with fire in his eyes in the third as he ignited a ferocious 17-6 attack that enabled them Junior Archers to take control on the way to an all-important victory that enabled them to bounce back from a deflating 58-78 loss in the series opener last week.
“I was surprised when I was hit here,” Melecio told sports scribes while pointing on the left side of his mouth. “I was surprised when I got hit and luckily, they (game officials) saw it.
“Actually, when I made those two free throws, that’s when I started to get my game going,” said Melecio, referring to a pair of freebies he converted at the start of the third canto after Jugar was slapped with an unsportsmanlike penalty-1 infraction.
Although he struggled from the field anew, making just five of his 16 attempts from the field, Melecio served as the facilitator majority of the way, a ploy that worked wonders and left La Salle-Zobel coach Boris Aldeguer.
“That’s the game plan,” Aldeguer said. “Because we knew if Aljun starts forcing his shots, then it would have been a disaster. It is about trust and he trusted his teammates. The minute his teammates got the ball, they’re going to deliver and not disappoint Aljun.”
The 5-foot-7 Sario, one of the graduating Junior Archers, was also pleased with how Melecio served as their rallying point. “We trusted Aljun to facilitate our offense. He created the plays and he also trusted us by kicking out the ball.
Luckily, we made the shots,” he said.
Melecio, who called out all his teammates and shared his MVP award at centercourt during the awarding ceremonies, also gave credit to his fellow Junior Archers.
“It’s really an amazing feeling to be trusted by them. I don’t feel any pressure with my MVP award and I just play my usual game,” he said. – By Jerome Lagunzad
La Salle-Zobel (71) — Sario 16, Melecio 14, Romero 14, Fortuna 8, Mariano 6, Sobrevega 5, Tongco 4, Paraiso 2, Cabarrus 2, Salafranca 0.
NU (60) — Clemente 25, Baltazar 15, Amsali 7, Penano 4, Coyoca 4, Atienza 2, Sarip 2, Jugar 1, Tolentino 0, Callejo 0, Manalang 0.
Quarterscores: 14-17; 30-30; 57-51; 71-60