WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
LJay Gonzales has picked up the cudgels to lead the charge for FEU towards the stretch run of the UAAP Season 84.
For hoop junkies, what Gonzales has shown this season should not come as a surprise at all. Since his days with the Baby Tams, Gonzales has been playing at this high level that helped them bag the UAAP Season 79 Juniors championship, and him being named Finals MVP. He then continued his stellar play in his first few years with the senior squad, being FEU’s top scorer back in Season 82 at 10.8 points per game.
And after two grueling years of waiting, the spitfire guard expressed nothing but excitement as he was able to show his wares once again on the basketball hardwood.
“Sobrang happy ako na nagbalik na ang UAAP and ‘yung buong team ‘yun din ang hinihintay. Kaya nagtrabaho kami mabuti, pinaghandaan namin iyon and ginawa namin best noong offseason,” Gonzales said.
With all the experience under his belt, Gonzales definitely understands the goal they aim at and what are things needed to be done, personally and collectively. It may sound cliché as every school desires to win the whole thing, but with the pedigree of the Tamaraws basketball program, making eight straight Final Four appearances (including this season), the longest current active streak in the UAAP, you would know how much this means for the 22-year-old guard.
“One step at a time lang kami, makapasok muna sa semifinals hanggang makapag-finals and mag-champion. Gusto ko rin ma-share sa mga bago kong teammates ‘yung mga natutunan ko sa mga kuya ko na nauna sa akin, lalo na sa decision-making,” Gonzales when asked about his outlook going into Season 84.
To provide a numerical nugget that might give you an idea of how Gonzales helped instill such quality to the team, FEU had the fourth-lowest turnover percentage in the eliminations (20.58%), according to Stats by Ryan. This statistic paints a better picture of how turnovers were committed, taking into account shots and possessions.
Gonzales also had hoped to improve his game every year, and sure he did. Points per game were expected to be up with an increased role encapsulated through his usage rate (from 25% to 27.7%), an appropriate metric that indicates the scoring load of a particular player. But the more important leap the third-year guard made was his improved efficiency from the field (39.5% to 41.6%) and shooting clip from rainbow country (24.4% to 31%)—with higher volume of shots attempted.
Yet, there is still a specific aspect in his shooting splits that Gonzales recognized, which needs to be worked on to fully make him a complete player.
“Ngayon, struggling pa rin ako sa mga free throws ko. Kailangan ko pa talaga na i-practice pa para makuha ‘yung range. Doon ako nahihirapan talaga this season.”
This observation is true since his free throw percentage had a sharp decline from 77% in Season 82 to a lowly 59.7% this season, even being a more frequent customer from the stripe (1.7 to 4 attempts per game).
Don’t get fooled, Gonzales had an incredible outing for this season. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives. It can be attributed to his own work to refine his game, but he deflects the credit to FEU head coach Olsen Racela’s impact on his basketball game and his life outside the court as well.
“Tuwing practice, lagi niya ako sinasabihan na sundin lang ‘yung game plan and itakbo lang lahat ng sine-set niyang plays. Tapos off the court, parang ko na rin siyang tatay kasi lagi niya ako binibigyan ng advice about life. Ang laking bagay niya talaga sa akin,” the FEU guard said.
Indeed, Gonzales excelled at listening to Racela’s instructions to run their offensive system smoothly. In 13 games played, he became one of the best facilitators in the UAAP, having a superb passing rate of 5.77 and 6.74 passing production. These stats work hand in hand to measure the quality of passes made and how much it is converted into baskets.
Another element that might have been key to the success of Gonzales is his familiarity with the whole roster. The Tamaraws are fortunate enough to have retained the majority of their players from the juniors team, and Gonzales, having been involved in numerous big games, was more than willing to guide them to greater heights.
“Alam na namin ‘yung nilalaro ng bawat isa, kaya konting kindatan lang alam mo na kung may backdoor (pass) na libre o libre na outside shot. Mas napadali tuloy ang pagtulong ko sa kanila at mas alam ko na ang gagawin ko para i-lead sila sa mga susunod pang games,” Gonzales said about his current teammates.
Results have proved all these statements of Gonzales correct, as they finished with a 7-7 win-loss card, which propelled them to the fourth and final spot of the Final Four. Now the task at hand: a duel with the defending champion Ateneo Blue Eagles. Coming into the game as underdogs, Gonzales mentioned some of the things that he and the team must do to force a do-or-die game.
“Need sa akin mag-umpisa lahat since ako ang point guard. Sana maging less ang turnovers ko and makinig lang ako sa mga sasabihin ng coaching staff sa akin. As a team naman, mas ayusin pa namin ang depensa and less mistakes din sa execution ng opensa,” Gonzales said.
For contextual purposes, the Tamaraws were the second-ranked offense (98.7 points per 100 possessions) and the sixth-ranked defense (92 points per 100 possessions). So if there is something to clean up, that is how they’ll generate stops against the well-oiled machine of Ateneo.
Whatever happens to their upcoming games this Season 84, Gonzales only promises to give it his all for school and pride.
“Gusto ko may maiwan akong memories dito sa FEU na pwede kong balikan kapag tumanda ako. Patuloy ko lang na ipapakita na kaya ko makipagsabayan sa mga best players dito sa UAAP and dalhin ang championship dito (sa FEU),” he said.
The good news for the Tamaraws, their nucleus will remain tight for years to come. As for LJay Gonzales, expect him to not only assume leadership, but willingly lift them up to bring the chip back to Morayta.
(Photos by UAAP Media)