Call them the local version of the UConn women’s basketball team in the US Women’s NCAA already.
After winning three straight UAAP women’s basketball titles (sweeping each year from Season 77 to 79 in the process), the National University Lady Bulldogs are back for more trophy-chasing, sweeping the first round of the Season 80 women’s basketball wars.
Some, including them, expected this season to be a rough one following the departure of Afril Bernardino, arguably an all-time great, Gemma Miranda, and Andrea Tongco.
Unfortunately for the seven other teams, it hasn’t been the case as the Lady Bulldogs continued to go on a tear, now winning 55 straight games dating back to Season 77.
After a round of competition, some teams have emerged as the most likely contenders to dethrone NU. Some have opted to go on a rebuilding phase. But the actual gap between NU and the rest of the league is still distant, and unless some miracles happen, expect them to make it four in a row.
For now, here is the UAAP Season 80 women’s basketball tournament mid-season report.
National University (7-0): Clear-cut front-runner again
A quick stats-related trivia to summarize their dominance this season so far: the top three players in the statistical points race, a.k.a. the primary basis for the season MVP award, are all Lady Bulldogs.
The 6-foot-2 Jack Danielle Animam is lording it over with league-leading averages of 17.4 RPG and 3.1 BPG, on top of 12.4 PPG. Animam is shooting 58.6 percent from the field, just behind another center Rheensa Itesi, who is second on the MVP leaderboard.
Like Animam, Itesi averages a double-double (14.6 PPG, 13.9 RPG) and leads everyone in field goal percentage at 58.8 percent shooting.
After coach Patrick Aquino’s wings departed, it was expected that he would tweak his system and give priority to both his backcourt and bigs, and Animam and Itesi have both flat-out dominated, surpassing initial expectations. They are among the team leaders in minutes and field goal attempts per game too.
Also on top of the MVP Race is guard Ria Nabalan, who leads NU in three-point makes per game. She and Trixie Antiquiera, another NU gunner, are among the top five best three-point shooters in the competition.
As a team, NU leads the league in both offense (79.4 PPG) and defense (52), a whopping 27.4-point differential. They lead everyone in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks all by a considerable margin.
Aside from the Big Three, NU has enough depth with tested veterans like Antiquiera, Janeth Sison, Monique Del Carmen, transferee Cherry Ano-os, and even Je-anne Camelo so it is obvious that unless a disaster keeps them inside the NU campus ’til December, they’d win another crown for F. Jhocson.
And they still thought it would be a more challenging ride this time around Yep, cancel this season and give them title number four already.
University of Santo Tomas (6-1), University of the East (5-2): Legitimate contenders to the throne
For the second straight time in their first round meeting, UE was able to push NU to the limit, losing by just three points in their respective season-opening clash.
UE prides itself in defense this season. They have the slowest pace among the eight teams at just below 82 possessions per contest. They rank just behind NU in points allowed, points in the paint allowed, and rebounding.
The twin-tower combination of Eunique Chan and Love Joy Sto. Domingo are again playing Mythical 5 level basketball. Sto. Domingo is the team’s best player, averaging an all-around 14.9 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.1 SPG, and 1.0 BPG and should be a lock to make Mythical 5 at the least again. Sto. Domingo is fourth in the MVP race behind the NU Big Three, fourth in scoring, third in rebounding, and fifth in field goal percentage.
It’s been the same formula for coach Aileen Lebornio, now in her fifth year with the team, and her Lady Warriors are on their way to another winning season. However, finally making it past two consecutive early exits in the Final Four is still something they need to prove they can accomplish.
Meanwhile, if their men’s squad is winless so far in their division, the UST Tigresses have emerged as one of the better contenders this year in the women’s game.
Coach Haydee Ong opted for internal improvement, focusing on player development, and it has resulted to more mature, more composed, more organized squad that has already equaled their win total from Season 79.
In Ong’s conservative, top-heavy rotation, it was Jem Angeles who has been the leader. Angeles is the UAAP women’s leading scorer with 17 PPG. She has improved tremendously with her outside shooting, making 41.7 percent, second-best in the league. Anjel Anies and Misaela Larosa both support her with 12 PPG each.
UST likes to run, leading the league in fastbreak points with 13.7 a game. Among the three top teams, they have the fastest pace. They are second in points per game and points per 100 possessions. They also create a lot off opponent turnovers, with a UAAP-best 18.6 per contest.
UST bested UE in their showdown, although when it comes to a match-up against NU, UE may have the better chance simply because of the presence of Chan and Sto. Domingo. They are bigger than the Tigresses and the better defensive unit. In the end, limiting NU in what they do gives you the best chance of beating them.
Far Eastern University (3-4), Adamson University (3-4), De La Salle University (2-5), Ateneo de Manila University (2-5): Wide-open race for the last Final Four Spot
Outside of NU, UST, and UE, which are Final Four locks, the last spot in the playoffs is pretty much a four-way race between the Lady Tamaraws, Lady Falcons, Lady Archers, and Lady Eagles.
Only one game separates the fourth-ranked team right now in the standings from the seventh-ranked squad, and the games among the four sides in the second round might ultimately determine who advances to the post-season.
The main reason for FEU’s better first round this season compared to last year is the duo of Precious Arellado and Valerie Mamaril. The two both love to attack the rim. Arellado, also the main playmaker of the Lady Tamaraws, averages 8.5 free throw attempts a game while Mamaril leads the league in free throw percentage at 78.3.
The Lady Tamaraws are the only team in this group with a positive point differential. They have the balance, and that may be enough to propel them to the top four seed.
The Lady Falcons made the playoffs last year with six wins, only beating UST in a qualification game for the fourth seed. Adamson distributed the load this year, with veterans Nathalia Prado, Jamie Alcoy, Kristeena Camacho, Kathleen Araja, and Jonalyn Lacson having the huge chunk of the minutes.
Like last year, Adamson is within striking distance of a playoff spot. They’ve had a couple of close losses in the first round, particularly one against Ateneo which obviously affected their record midway through the tournament. They have the veteran pieces, and if they can close out games better, they might just be able to turn things around in the second half of the elimination round.
It might be a surprise for some given they’ve been a consistent Final Four team, but the Lady Archers have opted for a rebuild after losing double-double machine Snow Penaranda and big Jamie Roxas from last season, and Alyanna Ong and Ara Abaca from two years ago.
La Salle still stuck to what they do best, which is spacing the floor and shooting a ton of threes with a guard-laden roster. They are a league-best 31.8 percent from deep. Sharpshooter Khate Castillo paces the Taft squad with 14.6 PPG and 6.0 RPG. She is the only double-digit scorer while another backcourt weapon Marga Dagdagan is also shooting well from long distance at 37.5.
But as expected, it has been a struggle for them without much size and depth. If it wasn’t for Castillo’s game-winner against Ateneo, they could have ended up with only a single win after seven meetings. Coach Cholo Villanueva’s ball-and-player movement-savvy system is still a joy to watch, but as it is, there isn’t much competing from La Salle this season.
The Lady Eagles were the disappointment of the first round, wounding up with only two victories. Interestingly, they opened the season winning two straight, before struggling to close out games. They lost by six to both FEU and UST, and by three to La Salle. They could have 5-2 entering the break, but instead, they will have a lot of catching up to do.
While Jollina Go is their leading scorer with 11.7 PPG, center Kristina Deacon was the brightest spot for them. Deacon added a three-point shot to her game. She is shooting 50 percent overall from the field, 85.2 percent on open attempts, and 75 percent from the line while averaging 10.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG.
Hazelle Yam, now in her fourth year, remains one of their most complete players, tallying a statline of 8.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, and 3.4 APG.
Given how tight the race is, Ateneo is still in a decent position to extend their campaign. Sweeping this group is a realistic goal. Add an upset and they can overcome their 2-5 start and see where it goes.
University of the Philippines (0-7): Cellar-dwelling anew
It just hasn’t been a kind season for the Lady Maroons. In spite of the second-highest pace in the tournament, they are dead-last in points per 100 possessions. They are also the league-worst in scoring and field goal percentage (27 percent) and second-worst in three-point shooting (18.2 percent) in spite attempting the most long-range shots.
The Lady Maroons brought basically the same line-up from last season, and had the right thing in mind which is to run and try to hit a bunch of threes. They had the right system in pace, although unfortunately, it hasn’t translated to wins.
The defense isn’t too terrible, but at the end of the day, they have to produce more on the offensive end so they can keep up with opposing teams until the end of games and hopefully give themselves a shot to win them.