More than earning bragging rights after besting the best of the NCAA, safeguarding the pride of our own UAAP champions, and of course gaining a berth in the best of 3 PCCL finals, Thursday’s win against one of the most astoundingly consistent college basketball programs in the country was a tremendous character win for Coach Juno Sauler and the De La Salle Green Archers.
Since the 76th season of the UAAP men’s basketball season concluded, there have been a few pivotal wins that the Green Archers have notched which have stood shoulders above the rest, that have transcended the current win-loss records or whatever was at stake at that particular moment—those two elimination games against the Ateneo Blue Eagles, that second round game against FEU which exorcised all those “meltdown” demons of the previous round, plus those series-clinching wins against the Tamaraws, and of course over the UST Growling Tigers in the finals.
Anyone who saw the game live, whether in the venue or on the televised broadcast, could clearly see Coach Juno Sauler pulling all the stops to rack up another win yet still being willing to tweak his rotation and try out a few new tricks. That sudden full court press late in the game personally surprised me.
It was a tight game as expected and just as advertised, with San Beda’s top guns Baser Amer running the offense and hitting his usual shots, Art Dela Cruz striking for the inside and the outside with his crafty moves and Ola Adeogun basically just trying to impose his will against every La Salle defender. The Green Archers responded with their top guns matching San Beda’s intensity with more fire with every single possession.
With San Beda leading by 6 points a little over 6 minutes left, a sense of urgency pervaded not only over the La Salle players but the relatively thick and boisterous crowd of La Sallian supporters as well. And with a game whose implications and ramifications were precariously hanging in the balance, a sense of calm, albeit tinged with anxiety, came over me. It was only a matter of time when, like time and time again, the heart and Animo of this La Salle team would sustain them.
And as expected, it was classic La Salle. The classic Animo fire in the payers’ hearts, the relentless will to win that made the Green Archers come out on top against a team with an almost equally fierce drive to win: Jeron Teng, with a game high 23 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists, demanding the ball and enforcing his will with his usual array of strong drives to the basket, pivots and double clutches while banging his body against his defenders.
Jason Perkins, ever the untiring workhorse, just pounding the inside with his strength and footwork despite overly aggressive defenders and ending up on the floor numerous times, shrugging it all off and ending up with15 points and 14 rebounds.
And of course, the smart and crafty Almond Vosotros, with 12 points, always finding a way, especially after missing an open shot with a little over 30 seconds left with La La Salle leading by only two, tracking down his missed shot on the left wing and passing to Jason Perkins for an easy put back, certifying the win.
But more than beating the NCAA champions, sitting close to the bench I saw a different kind of fire and intensity in this La Salle team which made me realize that there is something more that makes up and lies at the very foundation of a heart of a champion; more than the racked up wins, beating highly touted teams, or even whatever titles and accolades the Green Archers amass along the way.
Maybe it’s Norbert Torres laying everything on the floor in a manner that will never show up in the stat sheets or box scores, holding his own against Ola Adeogun even if only on the defensive end. Enough for him to deserve a few minutes of rest here and there in total exhaustion after giving it his all.
Or Vosotros, his face full of frustration after falling half an inch short with every steal attempt but immediately rushing back to his man to prevent any open shot. Or relievers like Matt Salem, Robert Bolick and Kib Montalbo giving everything they’ve got while playing within the system, still on the learning curve, knowing that in doing so, with the constant encouragement of Coach Sauler, every hustle play contributes as much to the win as being the top scorer.
Even Oda Tampus, who has always been a personal favorite of mine, despite taking ill-advised shots at times or plays a plays a bit haphazardly every now and then, always brings that extra aggressiveness and swagger each time he steps on the court, no matter how short his minutes may be. Remember, he was the one who coaxed RR Garcia’s last unsportsmanlike foul which resulted in the latter’s only suspension of his UAAP career. Watch him closely each time he’s on the floor. You’ll know what I mean.
Thomas Torres, on the other hand, ought to dispel any comments out there that this team is lost without LA Revilla or any legitimate point guard. I have to take a rather emphatic stand on this. True, we all know Torres can run the floor just as well, or even better, than all the other point guards in any league. I am confident he will learn to balance his running style with a more controlled approach, especially in setting up the halfcourt offense and breaking the press. One thing’s for sure, just like in previous seasons, as the last defender during opposing team’s fastbreaks, he has no qualms at all in keeping in step and banging bodies with even much bigger open court players on opposing teams to prevent easy shots.
As for players like Gabby Reyes and Luigi De La Paz, I still remain very confident that the former will have a breakout game sooner or later, and when he does, he will be a force to be reckoned with armed with his speed and athleticism on the open court, aggressive drives to the basket and from the outside. The latter, on the other hand, just needs more time to regain his old shooting form (remember that first round game against Ateneo? I’m sure the Blue Eagles do).
Which brings me to the two final members of this Green Archers championship team, both of whom showed aggressiveness and frustration that showed nothing more than their unquenchable hunger to help their team, a nearly unparalleled desire to win Thurday’s game, and maybe a new side that brings me closer to getting a slightly bigger glimpse into what makes the heart of a champion.
Obviously still not a hundred percent, yet inserted into a game after a bit of a respectful conversation with Coach Sauler, Arnold Van Opstal played in brief spurts during the second and fourth quarter, mostly to give Norbert Torres a much needed breather. After that second quarter stint, without really being able to enforce his will in the post, he walked sullenly to the bench and forcefully introduced his right fist to his seat in the bench in utter frustration. The 2013 UAAP Most Improved Player was bordering on anger for obvious reasons: more than not being able to help his team the way he knows he could, I’ll go out on a limb and say he knew, like everyone else, that after facing and dominating the likes of Mammi, Sewa, Mbe, Abdul, Hargrove and Sentcheu in the UAAP, he could eat Adeogun for breakfast.
Which brings us to Coach Sauler, and emotions that I have never seen before after watching every single team this team has played so far. After a long series of, well, spotty officiating, another such instance in the third quarter resulted in two San Beda free throws. Coach Sauler surprisingly and frantically motioned to the La Salle Animo Squad to stop their drumming. Why? So in the ensuing silence that enveloped the relatively small arena, he could clearly give the officials a piece of his mind: that it’s not about making bad calls or exemplary ones, but whatever that trio armed with whistles decide, you really just have to call it both ways.
But in the ensuing timout, Coach Sauler, true to form as our favorite cerebral, just emphatically told his boys to keep their heads in the game beacuse no matter how much you whine, the officials won’t change their calls for you. More strikingly, his advice was that in heated circumstances like those, the more you have to elevate your game. Such a relief from all the hyperventilating on and off the court certain coaches from recent history have displayed, most especially in the press. It makes for good TV and sound bytes, but we all know know that’s really just whining more than anything. But whatever works right? (Even if sometimes it does just make you come off as a mad, ranting, grumpy coach who can’t move on quite just yet. Like I said, whatever works. I guess).
As Coach Sauler said in the post-game interviews, more than the result, it was the experience of playing a well-coached team like San Beda with a perpetually efficient basketball program that proved most beneficial for his boys. It’s the journey, not the destination, which matters most of all. Or if I may paraphrase, the manner in which you get to where you want to be makes the arrival so much more worthwhile.
I’m very confident Coach Sauler will be happy with his team’s rebounding edge, 49-36 (16-10 on the offensive end), the relatively high field goal shooting percentage, and the defense that prevented San Beda’s outside shooters from heating up. But that’s just me. Because our turnovers, 16, and interior defense still needs more focus. We all know the coaching staff is already hard at work on this.
But more than all that, the unceasingly constant quest for improvement, the fire in the individual players, the controlled aggression and emotion, there is something more than makes me realize what separates this La Salle team from other champions; what makes their heart different from the heart of championship swagger. Because every other team out there wants to win just as badly.
In my extremely modest opinion as simply a fan of this game and of this La Salle team, maybe it’s the acceptance of the team that while it is currently in a transition period, inevitably characterized by growing pains and trial and errors and learning experiences that may not always end in revelry, whether it be in terms of setting new plays, dealing with injuries, regaining confidence, utilizing different rotations, or discovering and allowing new or old emotions come to the surface minus all the smugness and arrogance, the heart of a champion will always contain that most indispensable ingredient- the untouchable, unmatched and pure desire to win. In the right way. And mustering up every ounce of skill and fighting spirit to do so.
I for one am scared an awed at how better this La Salle team will be in next year’s tournaments. But before I get ahead of myself, there is a little matter of payback due and a best of 3 finals to be played in two days. I am immensely confident all the lessons from Monday’s loss have been learned.
I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, but this time around let’s all go out and support our team and ensure that this year will end the way it should rightfully end, melodramatic storylines aside: With the De La Salle Green Archers as the kings of Philippine college basketball.
Let’s do this, shall we?