UP has its superhero in Lucero

MANILA, Philippines – As parties of sports enthusiasts left the Mall of Asia Arena on Thursday, April 7, to welcome the Metro Manila afternoon sun, the distinction in emotion was apparent.

Cheering, laughing, and triumphant in their expressions were the crowds in Maroon, likely headed for a noontime treat that would surely taste delectable no matter which kitchen it would come from.

Such is the sense of winning. It might even make skipping work or cutting class feel just a tad less guilty.

On the other side were despondent groups in green, the sentiments of irk spread across their faces like jam on a toast, unable to mask the disappointment that the Archers let their prey get away, even if the trap had already been laid.

Walking quickly and looking at his phone – probably overwhelmed by congratulatory messages – a noteworthy individual in Maroon looked up and couldn’t hide his delight.

“Ahh,” he said, greeting a reporter he’s spoken to in the past.

“That Lucero kid is special, huh?” Pato Gregorio, a booster and backer of University of the Philippines’ basketball program, was asked.

“I know,” he gladly responded. “We waited two years.

“Two years. And we got him.”

“I’m guessing you’re happy?” Gregorio is asked this time.

“Very happy,” he grinned.

And why shouldn’t he be?

Why shouldn’t anyone else in the UP community?

It’s rare that a potential big-name prospect from halfway across the world claims his intentions to make MVP-caliber impact in this collegiate league, then backs it up. There are exceptions once in a while; those who prove that their actions speak even louder than their words.

Zavier Lucero, the hottest new name in the Philippine amateur hoops scene, is more than just an exception. He might be the savior this championship-starved program of the Fighting Maroons has desired since the days of Benjie Paras.

No. Not just desired. Needed.

In one of the most intense matchups of UAAP Season 84 which resembled what a Final Four battle is like, the UP Fighting Maroons snatched victory from the hands of the frustrated De La Salle Green Archers, separating the two universities in the standings by one game in the loss column.

Once the dominant team in this series, DLSU has now lost five consecutive times to University of the Philippines dating back to 2018, and there’s a trend that seems to be taking place of late: nearly every time the Archers and Maroons go head-to- head, La Salle plays well enough to secure the win, sometimes being mere moments away, only to fumble victory against a basketball team that is dangerous when given even a sliver of opportunity.

These Green Archers tied or outscored the Fighting Maroons in every quarter and built a 7-point lead with 6:20 to go on the game clock. For 34 minutes, DLSU forced the tempo of the contest to match their style of slow, deliberate, and physical basketball. Rarely did UP get easy running opportunities in transition. When they had to execute in half-court setups, DLSU’s height, wingspan, scoring and rim protection deterred opportunities in the paint.

“We were really trying to execute it offensively but of course, La Salle also has a tough defense. They forced us into some turnovers,” Maroons head coach Goldwin Monteverde said after the game.

“The good thing is we responded well.”

Here’s a good thing to have: a superstar-level player who can change the tide of a battle in a heartbeat, almost like a superhero.

In the final minutes of this showdown, that’s exactly what Lucero was for the fans who were more than happy to shower him with chants that begin by going “U-NI-BER-SI-DAD…”

The crowds might be less than usual, but it doesn’t change the effect that takes place when it happens.

And for the other side, Lucero may as well have been Lex Luthor.

“I just [have to] control what I can control and try to fight through the growing pains that we have as a team, but yeah, I thought we [did a] good job tonight,” the Fil-Am standout said.

Lucero finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. He also had two steals and a block and shot an effective 9-of-15 from the floor. He’s an all-around threat who can score, rebound, pass, play defense, go after loose ball, make hustle plays, convert clutch shots, sink free throws, and provide anything else a team needs. To do all of that at 6-foot-7 – a walking mismatch – should help Monteverde sleep better at night.

Most of all, he’s competitive. Really competitive. What’s that they say again?

Ayaw magpatalo (He doesn’t want to lose).

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

UP’s game-changing push started with 6:19 left on the clock. The Maroons ran what’s slowly becoming their bread-and-butter play on offense: a Joel Cagulangan and Lucero pick-and-roll.

La Salle switches this action with long-limbed Michael Phillips guarding Joel in the perimeter and the shorter Evan Nelle fronting Lucero once he touches the paint. The La Salle guard, however, keeps his eyes on Cagulangan and doesn’t notice there’s no back-help defense, as both Kurt Lojera and Justine Baltazar are occupied with their own defensive assignments.

The result? An easy two for Lucero on the roll to the rim.

If there’s a play to characterize what a “momentum-shift” is, it was the breakaway dunk Lucero had during one of UP’s rare fastbreak opportunities. Not only did Zav leap over the tall Baltazar, but he also had to readjust the angle of his dunk mid-air from straight up to a bit right. The athleticism and concentration required to pull that off is massive.

Interesting note: a few possessions before this, Lucero himself was put on a poster by Philips. Not only did that play not discourage him; It seems to have motivated him to get payback, albeit on another DLSU big.

The result? Momentary pandemonium.

Cagulangan was sensational for UP once again. It’s clear he’s become this team’s go-to playmaker. He finished with 5 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. He also had 5 turnovers but he still leads all Fighting Maroons in +/-. Basically, when he’s on the court, not only is UP winning, but they’re also crushing adversaries.

With La Salle’s lead down to 3, Lucero sets a pick for Cagulangan. Phillips drops and Nonoy goes under the screen as they dare the former Green Archer to beat them from deep. That’s exactly what he does.

It’s the same play but this time, Lucero pops to outside the three-point line. Phillips realizes what’s taking place a bit too late and doesn’t get there quickly enough to properly contest Lucero’s shot. That, or they’re purposely daring someone who’s shot rather poorly from deep to beat them from deep.

“Thank you,” Zav probably said in this situation. UP takes the lead.

After Phillips scores a bucket, Cagulangan comes down with the ball with Nonoy already at his hip because of applying pressure in DLSU’s press defense. UP is running HORNS with Carl Tamayo as the other screener. This confuses Phillips, who doesn’t halt Cagulangan’s process.

Because both UP bigs are out in the perimeter providing screens, the floor is spread out with shooters in each corner. Nelle goes to the paint to contest but can’t stop Joel from scoring an easy layup.

With the game tied at 59 and less than two minutes remaining, James Spencer missed an open three-ball from the corner. Lucero then made the play that would endear a basketball player to any fan base: getting a crucial offensive rebound and scoring on a putback.

That would end up being the final basket of the contest, because Lucero also made sure with his defensive effort on Phillips that there would be no overtime.

“When we got that 7-point lead, we became tentative [and] we just decided to protect the win,” DLSU head coach Derrick Pumaren said afterwards.

They did not protect the win.


“We got outplayed by Lucero.”

So, what did Zav do after the contest? Did he take a victory lap? Tell everyone he was right?

No. He credited his teammate. Tamayo’s 9 points on 4-of-14 shooting doesn’t stand out, but the defensive effort he played in limiting Baltazar, DLSU’s most important player, was notable.

“I don’t think he’s going to get the credit for it but him on the floor against Balti was really what helped us gets stops,” Lucero said.

Justine had 13 points and 10 rebounds but was a non-factor late in the game, as he couldn’t get to the spots where he likes to score. The fact he took only 9 shot attempts – fifth overall in the team – is indicative of that.

It’s also a worrying sign for DLSU. As promising as this current batch of Green Archers look, the lack of a reliable go-to guy on offense might become a major problem down the stretch of the season.

“We have to learn from the mistake we made,” Pomaren said. “We got to take care of business.”

They must. Especially the next time they face UP, because as Lucero made it abundantly clear, if La Salle or any other opponent gives him the opportunity to come save the day, he will be more than ready to put on his cape.

And the color of that cape is maroon. – Rappler.com

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