With our collective adrenaline hoop levels just starting to return to normalcy after the sublime 2-week Gilas experience, one just has to shake his head and admit that there’s nothing like starting the delayed second round with a win courtesy of a game-clinching shot in overtime.
This season I feel that the second round will be a chance for the Green Archers to get some huge monkeys off their backs after a very colorful first round (to put it mildly), and I was eagerly looking forward to yesterday’s game against Adamson because of all the off-court noise that followed their first encounter.
With two reliable players from Coach Juno Sauler’s rotation, Thomas Torres and Luigi De La Paz, sidelined, I was also curious to see how Kib Montalbo would respond to this challenge. Coming off the bench with LA Revilla starting instead of Torres, he didn’t disappoint. After one of those slow starts that’s always painful to watch and which I could just attribute to a bit of rust, the team got going once the second unit hit the floor with Montalbo running the offense. The game got quicker, and once our outside shots started falling, the Green Archers were able to spread the floor more and allow Arnold Van Opstal to have his way inside.
All the usual things I expected to see were there: Van Opstal showing he can really go toe-to-toe with all the other big men of the league, the team running the floor and converting points off turnovers, good team defense that disrupted Adamson’s last two plays of the game, and a defensive scheme that effectively rendered Ingrid Sewa insignificant just like in the first round matchup. It was very satisfying to see up close how our players were willing to sacrifice their bodies in being extra physical with the much heftier Sewa.
But there was something relatively unsettling about the win. Of course at the end of the day I’ll always take a well-deserved win whether it comes via a blowout or a nail-biter. But if I’ve learned anything about the character of this team, I’m sure they aren’t sitting back and taking this win in stride as well. With all the close games this season as reflected by the insanely tight standings, compounded by FEU’s loss to NU, this season is one of the most competitive ones in recent memory with 7 of the 8 teams still very much in the hunt. It’ll be a dogfight before clear Final Four slots are decided. No doubt this win against Adamson was a character win that showed heart, but I know the Green Archers can still play better.
In this second dance with Adamson, the Green Archers were never able to dictate the tempo of the game as dominantly as they did in the first round encounter. And even if we got away with the win, I felt the game shouldn’t have been as tight as it was. Like I said, knowing very well how the coaching staff pushes the players in practice, I’m certain they are already hard at work in still fine-tuning a level of play that can be sustained for the entire 40 minutes. I’m not looking for blowout wins, but all of us can agree that more comfortable ones wouldn’t hurt.
In spite of gutsy leaders in the clutch proving to be ever reliable such as LA Revilla and Almond Vostros, early on in the season it has been very clear to me that the Green Archers’ fortunes will ride on the consistent play of the entire team, and not solely on the shoulders of one or two players. With four players averaging double digits and three others norming 7 points or more (with five different players ending up as the team’s leading scorer during the first round), or Jeron Teng leading the team in assists one game and Thomas Torres grabbing the most rebounds in another, I think it’s obvious that if one or two guys in the main rotation play at a sub-par level, it throws the whole system out of sync.
In yesterday’s game, the most glaring aspect for me was Adamson winning the rebounding battle 52-40, with Rodney Brondial coming away with an alarming 23 boards. It’s never a good sign when a team gets outrebounded like that, especially considering how controlling the boards has always been one of our most consistent strengths. Another surprising statistic was our 9 free throw attempts compared to Adamson’s 30, with our first one coming only at around the 6:30 mark in the third quarter. Both areas clearly show Adamson played with more aggression by getting to the line and crashing the boards.
This is where two of our big men, Jason Perking and team captain Norbert Torres are needed most. Though I could see Norbert very frustrated after committing costly turnovers then redeeming himself by making a couple of crucial baskets down the stretch, it was a far cry from his dominating performance in the first round against the Falcons. On the other hand, Jason Perkins, who has proven to be a silent but very reliable cog in the rotation, couldn’t get into the flow of the game because of foul trouble. I always cut players at this level a lot of slack, the same way I still patiently await a breakout game from Gabby Reyes who showed huge potential during the preseason tournament.
The second round is when the real contenders will emerge and separate themselves from those who will just have to work at rebuilding for next year earlier than expected. Peaking at the right time has always been very crucial in UAAP basketball (I’m looking at you, Season 70 UE Red Warriors), and I believe the Green Archers are still right on track.
I know how dedicated the team has been working at becoming a more well-oiled unit and playing more satisfying games, which is why my faith in this team is still strong and hasn’t wavered. And with yesterday’s surprisingly thick La Salle crowd for a Wednesday game, the team can only get stronger after starting off the second round on a good note. After all, a win is still a win in any book.
1 down, 6 to go. Unless anyone out there finds any controversy in a game-winning shot in overtime having to take an extra bounce or two before going in, I think the team and its supporters can shake the dust from yesterday’s game, move on and look forward to exorcising bigger demons against FEU on Sunday.