The Green Archers played a game we all could be proud of last Sunday. It is not the result we want but indeed a fight well worth cheering our lungs out for. We played well enough to keep in stride with the Blue Eagles, we led in early goings until a great defense by Ateneo and a few minor surprises put themselves ahead and create some distance to pull off their 10th win in as many games.
Like what coach JB said this is a much better team than the one in the first round, better prepared and more familiar with each other. For Jamie Malonzo, Kurt Lojera, Jordan Bartlett et. al. the first round encounter may not have felt like a real La Salle vs. Ateneo game yet because it was overshadowed by their first time wearing the Green Archer uniform, let alone for Malonzo his first official game on Philippine soil and I will explain later why this matters. But for now, let’s look at the stat sheet to show how much the game is closer than what the scoreboard tells us.
On the positives, as expected we shot more accurately from behind the 3 pt. line 8 out of 25 compared to ADMU’s 8 of 32. Field goal percentage is pretty even at 34% each (DLSU-26 of 75, ADMU-27 of 79). Free throw shooting was the only offensive stat line we lost: 15 of 18 for them (83%) while we raised ours to 69% with 9 of 13. But La Salle outscored them on fast break points 13 to 9, outrebounded them 52-48 with the offensive rebounds even at 22 each. We are also up slightly on the assists with 15 to 13. Our perimeter shooting strength (38 against 26) was canceled out by their strong inside points (36 against our 22). Balti and Brandon combined for 14 points and 17 rebounds against Kuoame and Go’s 12 points and 19 rebounds. Our back court starters Aljun and Andre combined for 21 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists while Wong and Matt Nieto combined for 21 points, 3 rebounds and 5 assists. Offensively, we played just as good as they did and perhaps even slightly better.
On defense-related stats, Ateneo forced more turnovers on us with 17 while they took better care of the ball with only 10 and the points generated off TO’ is inversely proportional too: 17 points for them while only 10 for us. In the second quarter Coach Tab had his guys do to us what we normally did to them three years ago, force a 5-second inbound violation, a 8-sec. backcourt violation, intercept passes and made it really hard for us to just to cross the midcourt line. This happened in the middle quarters particularly when our backcourt bench took over and they didn’t fare as well as the defending champion’s backcourt bench of Belanguel and Tio who each knocked down a 3. But with all those forced TO’s we were just outscored by 2 points in the 2nd quarter and even outscored them in the third. If we had put those missed opportunities into good use we could have already built a good lead! Then there is the blocked shots – six for ADMU against one, three of them coming from their import Kuoame.
I have only praise for our starters who gutted it out and played their hearts out. They hung tough to keep the lead close and within single digits all throughout the game. Malonzo though was a bit off, missing his driving layups and struggled against a smaller defender in Thirdy who thrice poked the ball out of his hands. But still Jamie managed to get 10 points and 12 rebounds, six of them offensive. Melecio defended very well limiting Matt Nieto’s output and still shot the ball accurately despite the lengthier Wong hounding him all day. But who would have thought Wong would connect on 4 three pointers right? Can he score on us the same way the next time?
Finally, let’s talk about the intangibles and point out one major thing. In the post-game interviews, their graduating players got emotional in realizing it was probably their “last” La Salle – Ateneo game. This shows how much they treasure this and treat this as a major event in their lives. The Nieto twins being a product of a Blue Eagle even shared how they watched their Dad on recorded games and dreamed of having their last-second shot moment in a La Salle – Ateneo game. Mike Nieto kept beating us out of the boards for 4 offensive rebounds with one made 3-point play. Matt didn’t need to score but did well enough to force turnovers and trigger fastbreak plays. But this was also the reason why Wong, who has been shooting badly in the first round, somehow made those 3 pointers only against La Salle. It was a repeat of what Mamuyac did in the first round who also scored 4 threes but hardly made shots against any other teams. This is what a La Salle – Ateneo rivalry game is all about, there is always one guy or guys rising above their normal game. Easily you can see this in Aljun, Balti, and Andre and they already get it. Encho, who has only experienced this for just the third time chooses to raise his game with 15 points and 8 rebounds. Joaqui, who shot those all-important threes, has it in him too coming from the other side in high school. This early coach Byrd already knows what it’s all about because you can tell in the interviews how he craves for another crack at Ateneo.
For Jamie, Jordan, Kurt, even Tyrus I believe this experience has given them a much better appreciation of what this rivalry game really means not just to their team but to the whole La Sallian community who cheered their lungs out for them, the entire game and ushered the Green Archers out of the dug out with a heartfelt standing ovation. They should also understand that the Nieto twins didn’t play that well on their first year either. If this loss stung really hard it only means they really get it now. And that opportunity to face them again is what will motivate them to win their remaining assignments to earn another chance at facing Ateneo in the final four playoffs, or maybe even in the finals. The next time we do, not only will the veterans bring their A-games but each one coming off the bench will now realize that when you are facing Ateneo, you play each quarter like it is the 4th quarter and someone else will raise their game in another level.