Right after yesterday’s win that enabled the Green Archers to brush away a huge monkey off their back, there was one play that stood out for me the most.
It wasn’t Jason Perkin’s monster game. It wasn’t Jeron Teng’s key baskets late in the 4th quarter. It wasn’t Almond Vostros’ timely three point shots or his crucial offensive rebound after a missed free throw which drew Christian Senthcehu’s fifth foul right in front of La Salle’s bench which entailed some minor shoving and color that proved Oda Tampus was going to stand up for his teammates no matter what. Nor was it Kib Montalbo’s oh so sweet side-stepping fastbreak layup against RR Garcia in the 2nd quarter. It was Coach Juno Sauler’s timeout at the 6:23 mark in the fourth period.
Leading 62-50 with just over 8 minutes remaining, a 10-0 FEU run in the next two minutes left Sauler and his boys with just a 2-point lead. There was no other choice but to call for a timeout. The FEU crowd was going nuts, while everyone on our side of the arena pretty much had the same thing in mind: This couldn’t be happening again. And it would be more painful if it did, because even if I’ve never shot myself in the foot, I can guarantee it would hurt my pride more if I did it twice. Suffice to say I would have given anything to be in that timeout.
I don’t know what was said during that timeout but right after, both teams exchanged baskets before our boys went on a 7-0 run, closing out the game by outscoring FEU 13-6. Glancing at the scoreboard during that timeout to keep my own sanity in check, the foul situation was also pretty grim. We already committed 3, while FEU had none against them. But a few minutes later, in the middle of that La Salle run, we were still at 3 fouls and the Tamaraws were already in the penalty. Again I have no idea what transpired during that timeout but our players came out of it by striking the right balance between control and aggression in the last 3 and a half minutes to come away with a relatively comfortable 9-point win.
I’m not out to spoil anyone’s party. Yesterday’s win was huge, showing us a team that is finally peaking, and proving that it has learned from its mistakes and can close out games not just by squeezing by off game- winning shots or breaks of the game. It was a big leap from the win against Adamson, and an even bigger one from those heart shattering first round losses.
But this time I’m on exactly the same page as Coach Sauler. And apparently so is the rest of the team. Because we didn’t see our players celebrating on the court as if a true underdog just knocked down a certified championship caliber team. As Sauler said after the game, that win wasn’t any different from a win against a team at the bottom of the standings, and that he was still concerned about the areas that needed improvement.
This shows me the character of this team, the system being implemented and the mindset of our coach. Any other coach of lesser character would probably be just happy to grind out wins. But now I am more than certain that Coach Sauler believes this team is of equal, or maybe greater, talent and caliber compared to the others. They’re coming along fine, but still not at the level of play he demands. Striving for excellence and not just content with getting by. That’s a true LaSallian in my book.
I’m also glad that instead of the word “meltdown,” the phrase “sustained level of play” is what we all can keep repeating. We all know the strengths of our team. The way we can outrebound opponents (the final count was 59-36 in our favor), a defense that can clog up the inside or prevent league superstars from turning in their usual stats (I’ll leave the more thorough breakdown of that aspect to Twitter-aficionados), a rotation and bench that always keeps opponents on their toes with rookies like Montalbo and Matt Salem proving their worth, and a balanced lineup with anyone being able to step up as the go-to guy at any given moment.
Given the fact that the words “meltdown” and “collapse” became such mantras in the first round also means our team can play at a certain level where it can consistently put up huge leads (yesterday’s high was 22), if you look at it in a glass-half-full kind of way, by playing to their strengths. The need now is to sustain that level of play so it doesn’t seem like someone pushes a button and those strengths suddenly disappear. Case in point, during that 10-0 FEU run, the Tamaraws suddenly were able to score off offensive rebounds, penetrate easily and cause silly turnovers (we ended up with 17). And of course, nobody is happy with our team’s 14-32 free throw shooting (4-11 in the last 3 and a half minutes).
But at the end of the day, this is a team that I hope everyone can finally start supporting unconditionally. That was a big win and all the hard work is bearing fruit on the court and in the standings, which is what pacifies most bottomline critics- wins. Another win down, another step up in the standings. I can now throw around the word “respect” with as much ease as the word “faith” when I talk about our team. And I have this feeling the word “fear” will cross the minds of our opponents from now on.