There are several ways to tell the story of certain games. The Green Archers’ 71-68 win over the FEU Tamaraws can be placed within the context of various things to get to the root of what was occurring within the 40 minutes of basketball being played: The stat lines, the box scores, the recaps, all the color during the game and those that transpired off the court in the last few days.
Coming into yesterdays’ game, we all knew the short and long-term history. La Salle never failing to make it to the finals when holding the twice to beat advantage. Aiming for a return to the finals after a four-year absence, with the best finish at fourth place last season. Looking to extend its remarkable 8-game winning streak. Check, check, and check.
It was also the story of an FEU team with its season on the line putting up a good fight, hitting 9-22 from the three point line, making one unchallenged shot after another whenever La Salle would make a run, but faltering in the end, making only 1-12 in the final quarter.
A La Salle team with a deep, reliable lineup saving its best for last would also make for an ideal headline. Limiting FEU’s main guns Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia to just a combined 5 points in the fourth quarter while making its final run by firing from all angles: Jeron Teng hitting clutch baskets and making crucial free throws. Norbert Torres sinking a short baseline jumper to beat the shot clock. Arnold Van Opstal and Jason Perkins coming alive in the inside. LA Revilla taking charge for the second straight game. And Thomas Torres bouncing back from a bad game with 7 points in the last quarter.
One can also zero in on Coach Nash Racela’s attempt to ignite the aggression in his team by attributing their previous loss to a case of being “bullied” but instead seeing his players lose their cool and resorting to juvenile playground taunting and trash talking. This all backfired the most at the end of the third quarter, seeing their lead cut to 4, as Gryann Mendoza ended his season on a careless foul and a few nasty words for the referee, giving the Archers extra free throws plus possession.
On the other hand, with Coach Juno Sauler’s blunt instruction not to play into FEU’s tactics and to keep their heads in the game, the Green Archers showed that toughness can stay within the confines of clean play, upping the ante on aggressiveness by outrebounding FEU 51-39, and going to the free throw line 35 times, compared to the Tamaraws’ 10.
Another interesting storyline was again Nash Racela trying to grab any trick out of a hat and hoping to pull off something straight out of the Franz Pumaren School of Mindgames by calling this La Salle program the “new Ateneo.” Hoping to put pressure on the Green Archers coming into yesterday’s game, one can admire the effort.
But we all know by now this La Salle team takes it lead from its coach who has shrugged off all the hype and opportunities to be swept up by emotion with a demeanor well suited for a world class poker player, brief concise replies worthy to be compiled into a collection of quotations, and an impenetrable approach to the pressure packed world of UAAP basketball right from the start– taking it one game at a time, one win at a time.
With a 9-game winning streak, any reasonable person couldn’t be blamed for expecting to see this La Salle team leading the league while scanning the overall team statistics. But they aren’t even leading the league in any major statistical category. They aren’t best or worst in any single category, aside from drawing the most number of fouls per game, and allowing the fewest number of second chance points and blocked shots, and the lowest three-point shooting percentage for opponents. You can be assured however that one of the areas Coach Juno Sauler’s tireless campaign for improvement is focusing on is the team’s 17.1 turnovers per game.
We all know the sports clichés: having the heart to win, being mentally tough, staying hungry, refusing to lose—phrases all so easy to throw around and extremely difficult to quantify. But when you see this season’s De La Salle Green Archers personifying those clichés and phrases on the court over and over again, for nine games in a row and with all sorts of pressure coming along with each game, you know this is a team making a strong case for greatness.
Personally I couldn’t resist taking away a sense of poetic justice from yesterday’s win. Overcoming multiple deficits reaching as high as 11 against a team that started all the “meltdown” frenzy back in the fourth game of the 1st round, it was a fitting way to finally close the book on that rough start to the season and enter the finals.
Yet it is exactly that particular strength of this La Salle team that gives it the strongest push for a run at a championship—how it remains unfazed by all pressure occurring on and off the court. Nothing else matters; not the history, not the hype, not the last win. Only whatever needs to be done to win the game at hand.
I’ve seen a lot of iconic moments in basketball, a lot of history made and greatness being defined particularly by La Salle teams in the past. I saw greatness taking place before my eyes yesterday. Greatness that is only beginning. There has already been much talk about how this current La Salle program is just getting started, with potential game-changing players coming in maybe as early as next season. But there is a time and place for all that.
There are still 2 or 3 games left to be played in this UAAP men’s basketball season, a championship still on the line. The stakes are now as high as they can get. But no matter how it ends, being part of the La Sallian community and a longtime fan of the game, I’m just glad and proud to be along for this ride.