Having had a lead as high as 14 points now cut to 2 with just under five minutes left, at 59-57, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t even an ounce of nervousness coursing through my body. But what overpowered that is a hard cold fact that anyone who hasn’t heard the news by now should have it stamped on their foreheads: This mentally tough La Salle team doesn’t know the meaning of the word “meltdown” anymore.
Again with the refusal to lose. Again with the clutch team play. Again with the multi-pronged attack that just leaves opposing teams bewildered. Though once again led by Jeron Teng coming up big down the stretch, the Green Archers held on to that two-point lead and responded with a 5-0 run, capped off by a jumper by LA Revilla. Even our boys’ earlier response to a 9-0 run by UST was in the form of a three-point shot by Thomas Torres that safely beat the third quarter buzzer. Again, I pose the question as well as the answer to any takers: Who do you need to stop on this La Salle team? Everyone on the floor.
Facing the team that dealt us our very first loss on opening day, yesterday’s game started out a far cry for that very rough start against UST in the first round, which we now all know can be attributed to the team still trying to grasp Coach Juno “The Scientist” Sauler’s system. But all my hats off to the entire team for sticking to their guns though all the first round losses, because the Juno Sauler Experiment has now turned into a menacing, well-oiled system making a strong, legitimate championship run that has given La Salle a sweep of the second round, its best finish since 2008, and its longest winning streak since 2004.
Despite starting out with three quick turnovers on its first three possessions, and despite the game being nip and tuck early on, I could see the Green Archers easily dictating the tempo of this game. UST decided to employ the same defense on Almond Vostros as NU, by assigning a much taller defender. But one has to admit the Tigers aren’t as defensively disciplined as the Bulldogs in defensive rotations and fighting off or switching on screens, as Vosotros already outdid his output in the NU game four minutes into this one, eventually ending up with 11.
And how can one talk about this game without commending the eruption of Norbert Torres? More than his aggression that resulted in14 points and 13 rebounds, it allowed Coach Sauler to rest Jason Perkins for relatively longer stretches without compromising our frontline and inside toughness. Which brings us to the continuing evolution of Jeron Teng. Aside from his clutch play, his contribution in other departments (such as yesterday’s 11 rebounds), and his performance from the free throw line which once again helped ice the game, going 6-7, it’s the new variations of his moves that also impress me. Going to the basket, he now consciously makes a move to fish for the foul, obviously bolstered by his new found confidence in his free throw shooting aptitude.
It was Coach Sauler’s system and the boys running it in fifth gear that really gave us the win- controlling the boards 53-41 and scoring 21 off offensive rebounds, easily breaking UST’s press, the satisfying ball rotation, the team defense by giving the timely help and double and having active hands, and even the welcome energy of pushing the ball at every opportunity and scrambling and winning out on loose ball situations. UST kept fighting, but they looked gassed in the final minutes with the game on the line. Not just physically, but mentally as well, as this La Salle team kept coming up with answers for every UST run.
The turning point for me, proving our team’s mental toughness and composure, won’t show up on any stat sheet. A minor third quarter incident which sent Kevin Ferrer inadvertently crashing to the floor due to Jason Perkins trying to untangle his right arm, and Ferrer’s reaction by doing some trash talking despite Perkins’ immediate reaction by extending a hand to help him up, was the moment I knew that if the game did go down the wire, it was our team that would come out on top by keeping their heads in the game.
Back to the question of who opposing teams should stop on this La Salle team, I’d like to add this to the equation: How can you stop the guy calling the shots from the bench? If there is one person on this team that deserves to be called the King Archer, it’s Juno Sauler, with his system, bag of tricks and emphasis on mental toughness and the need for continuous improvement. More noticeable than inserting Arnold Van Opstal in the starting lineup once again was his message to his players for the second straight game in spite of the high stakes: “Just enjoy playing the game you love.” Moreover, his comments regarding how his boys perform in practice concerns him more than anything just proves his confidence that if the team simply runs the system, all will be well. And it all has, indeed.
Also noticeable is how Matt Salem and Gabby Reyes were given extended minutes, along with Thomas Torres, more than Kib Montalbo, to get his groove back after missing a number of games. I’m fairly certain this in preparation for the semifinal and highly probable championship games on the horizon. He wants his full arsenal warm and ready for what lies ahead.
Now I have to be completely honest and say that I am fighting the urge to touch on a very interesting and highly amusing thing that happened right after the final buzzer, as well as respond to the instant violent reaction to it on social media. Ahh Twitter, once again used as the court of last resort to pour out misdirected frustrations. I’m very tempted to elaborate on how our supporters in the arena started a chant egging UST on for their next game with even our Animo Squad joining in. I’m also tempted to elaborate on how the equally amusing reaction to all that, which essentially brought up words such as “class” and “breeding,” simply proves the meaning of irony is clearly lost on certain supporters (who, from firsthand experience, have themselves chanted things at extremely inappropriate times that would make even the writers of Breaking Bad cringe) in light of recent actions by their coach and board representative.
But I’d rather not. I’d rather paraphrase a statement I’ve been hearing more and more from fellow La Sallians since the fourth game of the second round whenever we gather before or after the games or at halftime and such topics concerning juvenile whining and other off court noise come up: We don’t win games in the boardroom nor wage the battles that really matter on social media, we do all of that where it counts- on the hardcourt.
So on that note, knowing Coach Sauler’s attitude and approach to the game relatively well by now, all that just needs to be shrugged off with a smirk as the team and its coaching staff have definitely started preparing for the best of 3 series against FEU possibly as early as when they were headed to the dugout yesterday. The team that swept the first round against the team that swept the second, with a finals berth at stake. Bring it on.