True, the Green Archers are sharing first place with two other teams, FEU and NU, all having clinched a Final Four slot. And despite Ateneo and UST still fighting for the final semifinal slot, while leaving us all having to wait until the dust settles before knowing who the number 1 and 2 seeds will be, we all know by now that the real top dogs of the league are donned in Green and White.
What started out as a payback-redemption round for La Salle after the break for the FIBA tournament has gradually turned into a legitimate championship run and a 6-game winning streak/statement to the rest of the league that can be best explicated in this manner: With an obviously shell-shocked NU team huddling after yesterday’s loss and most likely with the question “What happened?” running through their minds (and in the minds of any skeptics still left out there), the writing on the wall is clear: La Salle happened.
It was very obvious that Coach Juno “The Mentalist” Sauler and his boys came prepared for the only team that really legitimately outplayed us in the first round. Inserting Arnold Van Opstal in the starting lineup for the first time this season, La Salle was out to play aggressive and do battle in what turned out to be a highly possible finals preview. The two teams with the most cohesive units and efficient systems in the league went head-to-head in a gritty defensive game, battling for every rebound and each coming up with their unique, respective defensive game plans.
NU was set on not giving Almond Vosotros a single inch, while La Salle on the other hand made a gutsy move by allowing certain Bulldogs to live and die with the three-point shot while making it a war in the inside, effectively neutralizing the likes of Emmanuel Mbe. We all know by now that it was Coach Sauler’s gamble that paid off, with NU just going 1-7 from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter and Bobby Ray Parks missing a potential game-winner from the three-point line.
Here’s another question future opponents ought to spend sleepless nights on: Who do you stop from La Salle? NU did shut down Almond Vostoros and held Van Opstal to just 5 points despite playing 30 minutes, but that just allowed Jeron Teng and the man amongst boys Jason Perkins to have their way for most of the game. And despite holding Vosotros to just a single basket the entire game, it was a pivotal one off a missed free throw by Van Opstal with a little less than 3 minutes left. Here’s some unsolicited advice to opposing coaches: You have to stop this entire La Salle team, and not just one or two players. Good luck with that.
I admit there is some cockiness and swagger with the way I’ve been starting to talk about this La Salle team. But it’s not the 6-game winning streak that compels me to do so. It’s the continuing attitude of Coach Sauler that refuses to be content and still strives for improvement. I did like La Salle’s aggressiveness yesterday, proven by our 23 attempts from the free throw line compared to NU’s 4. But I feel a little more fine-tuning can be done regarding floor spacing when setting up plays in the post, as well as swinging the ball out of double teams, especially now that I’m certain other teams have scouted us well. And our 15.9 turnovers per game really is unacceptable.
But with the way Coach Sauler and his boys buckled down during the break in between rounds to improve and address earlier deficiencies instead of wasting any energy whining about officiating and mind-numbing league decisions or resorting to Twitter to take cheap shots, I believe this peaking La Salle team has yet to reach its apex. With primary focus on fortifying the mental toughness of his players, this has translated into the likes of Jeron Teng icing yet another game from the free throw line by saying he just now approaches it the same way he does in practice, or into a now trademark Green Archer fighting spirit that can respond to a 9-point deficit with 5 minutes left in the game with a 14-3 run.
With a little more tweaking here and there, and a bag of tricks that I know is still pretty full, Coach Sauler’s puzzle that he started to put together merely 3 weeks before the season started is nearly complete, having the important pieces finally in place: The refusal to lose, the vast improvement of certain players, a fluid and flexible offensive and defensive system, that hunger for excellence to sustain a certain level of play no matter who they face.
All in quest for the biggest piece of all: Bringing the championship title back to Taft where it belongs.