La Salle vs Ateneo Game Reaction: Team Phenom

It never gets old. And like all good things, the most celebrated rivalry in Philippine sports just gets better with age.

With both teams tied for third coming into yesterday’s game, we all knew it was going to be a dogfight. As it should be. The rivalry has now reverted back to the old paradigm that when these two teams duke it out on the court, all stats should be thrown out the window because you just never know what you’re going to be in for. Especially not Jeron Teng hitting a game winning jump shot in the paint on a designed play leaving Ateneo with 1.9 seconds left and no timeouts.

The day belonged to the Green, and the Blue went home…well, blue.

To emphasize how close the game was, both teams came away with 46 rebounds and shot 64.3% from the free throw line. Total field goal shooting was pretty close as well. A huge area of concern for me was La Salle’s 18 turnovers, in addition to not really being able to run their system and play to their strengths: no running game or scoring points off turnovers, not taking care of the offensive glass, defensive misreads that left too many Blue Eagles open from the three-point line, no consistent clean passes to the post and swinging the ball to our own open shooters when double teamed.

As the first half was coming to an end, I was wondering how we were keeping the game relatively close despite the absence of the usual marks of Coach Sauler’s system. But when Almond Vosotros beat the halftime buzzer with a three point shot off the glass, I had my answer: Heart. That’s what I knew was going to win the game for us. Pure heart. And coaching excellence by Juno Sauler, showing us that a short and tight rotation doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of a bag of tricks.

La Salle never got to play at the level it usually does, or maybe credit has to be given to the scouting of Ateneo. I’ll let you decide. Arnold Van Opstal had difficulty in the post the entire game, bothered by overly aggressive defense and double teams that made it difficult to pass to open shooters who were aptly covered for the most part.  And Ateneo’s rebounding prevented the Green Archers from getting any real running game going. But Sauler and his boys countered all that with off the book substitutions and players stepping up on the biggest stage this side of the Final four and the finals.

LA Revilla came out aggressive right from the get go, but Kib Montalbo once again proved he’s not all hype by taking the helm during that first La Salle run, and even holding court effectively during the late stretches in the 4th quarter.  After Oda Tampus and Almond Vosotros took turns at defending Kiefer Ravena, Gabby Reyes had his shot and held his own for a long stretch, keeping the phenom in check. Another classic moment: Ravena dribbling out the clock at the end of the 3rd quarter, asking for a clearout and obviously salivating with Robert Bolick defending him, all of which resulted in an unphenomenal turnover.

I mean no offense at all to a highly revered sports writer, analyst, alumnus and the headline he chose for his column in one of the major dailies yesterday. But Kiefer’s revenge? Maybe Ravena can have it against UE on Sunday (or following the lead of a former teammate, on Twitter perhaps?), because yesterday he was held to 4-13 from the field and 3-8 from the free throw line; the only Blue Eagle to miss from the stripe. He did hit a couple of incredible shots, especially one that tied the game at 64. But nothing phenomenal, is all I’m saying.

And I’d be remiss not to mention how Ryan Buenafe, a perpetual extra-sized thorn on La Salle’s side, was reduced to spending more time whining to the officials rather than elevating his game the way he usually does against La Salle, with his hands more than full with Jason Perkins playing another monster game with 13 points and 15 rebounds.

I admit it would be unfair to say that only the winning team played with heart, as that close, grueling game clearly showed both sides leaving it all on the court. The big difference is when heart stays within the confines of the game- running good plays, hitting clutch shots, making smart decisions-and not rushing onto the court contesting a call and costing your team crucial points and a possession. And definitely not attempting to start a fistfight with a fan from the opposing side when everyone should just head to the dugout and take their losses like men, regardless of any heckling directed at you.

And they say Coach Juno Sauler needs to be more emotional? I’d rather have a coach who calmly takes the game as it comes to him, win or lose, and adjusts accordingly, displays his heart by running his system regardless of hype or criticism, continuously molds a much maligned team in the first round to the well-oiled machine it is now, as well as one who thinks on his feet no matter what, rather than a coach who goes berserk at the expense of his team (I’m also looking at you, Nash Racela).

No shaved heads as a sign of unity, or any such nonsense. Just class and composure. Heart and hard work. And wins that now puts La Salle in a realistic position to take a twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four.

Before I end, I’d like to go back to Jeron Teng’s game winning shot. As what has been characteristic of this La Salle team that has been solidly peaking since the second round began, you never know who is going to kill you. Coming out of that timeout, it was anybody’s guess who would take the last shot- Almond Vosotros? Jason Perkins? LA Revilla? Van Opstal? I would have been fine with any of them. Heck I’d even be okay with a play designed for Montalbo at this point. The point being anyone can step up, even a player who was cold the entire game and rode the bench for the duration of the 3rd quarter.

Like a broken record, I’ve said time and again that I’d rather have the fortunes of this team ride on everyone’s shoulders and not just solely on one or two players. And on a personal note, Jeron Teng’s winning shot was for that questionable non-call in the dying seconds of last year’s Final Four game. I’ll leave it at that.

So with all the madness of the first round finally behind us, this is where the Green Archers stand: a four game winning streak, solo third place with just a game behind the league leaders, and the first elimination round sweep of Ateneo since 2005. To the casual fan who at the start of the season told me she wishes we could go back to the Franz Pumaren era, this is all I have to say: Welcome to the Juno Sauler era.