Coach Juno Sauler’s relentless, season-long quest for the perfect game has brought La Salle to the brink of UAAP men’s basketball glory.
With La Salle playing its first knockout game of the season, there was a right mix of tension and excitement all over the coliseum for the Lasallian community. We all kept the faith. We all knew this La Salle team had so much more fight and heart left , and we all knew it was going to be one hell of a game in light of how tightly contested the first encounter was.
Ready for another heart-pounder as the tip off got going, it instead turned to be easily one of the most dominant games played by the Green Archers the entire season. Just another day at the office for Coach Sauler and his boys.
There are so many narratives running through this finals series, as any great championship matchup deserves. Brother against brother. UST’s outside sniping against La Salle’s inside dominance. The Growling Tigers’ experience vs the Green Archers’ lack of it. The heated finals matches from two decades ago, and both teams trying to recapture championship titles from recent history. And the extreme styles and demeanors of two opposing coaches.
But the best narrative of all? A coach quietly shrugging off all that exterior noise and buzz, zeroing in game after game on what counts the most: playing the game the way it should be played. Beneath all the melodrama and plotlines, this is basketball after all.
After losing to the red-hot Tigers in Game 1 which all boiled down to an inch getting in the way of a potential game-winning shot by LA Revilla, and with La Salle playing to their strengths and proving the fire is strong in their hearts by cutting down a huge deficit in no time, the Green Archers came out in Game 2 with more of the same. And then some.
This whole season so far, seeing how as the rebounding department goes, so does the fortunes of La Salle, this game was never in doubt as they utterly enforced their will inside the paint, winning the battle of the boards 57-39, 27-10 on the offensive end, and second chance point after second chance point from start to finish. Textbook aggression and hustle, minus all the unnecessary energy wasted on complaining about officiating and resorting to flailing elbows after sliding on the floor and fighting for a loose ball. (I have no shame in admitting I found it satisfying to see the much smaller LA Revilla getting in the head of Kevin Ferrer near the sideline after the latter’s unsportsmanlike foul)
In line with Coach Sauler’s endless campaign for game to game improvement, the calculated and determined inside play wasn’t enough of course. Almond Vostoros and LA Revilla came out to play as well. And even as UST cut the lead down to 2 after back to back triples, it only required a timeout, simple adjustments on floor spacing, proper passes off double teams, and the Green Machine went on rolling towards a win.
Using just a 7-man rotation (because Coach Sauler wanted to, and that’s that folks), La Salle never let up on aggression and hustle, kept out of foul trouble, and stayed in the faces of the UST shooters, contesting nearly every shot and going over the screens instead of under, holding the tigers to just 5-23 shooting from three-point range.
More than evening the series and forcing a final game for the title, yesterdays’ win will also go a long way in terms of this particular La Salle team’s much hyped inexperience in the finals. This is their first appearance in the finals after all. But this is how legends are made and iconic images are ingrained in the hearts and minds of the La Sallians cheering their lungs out from the stands. Norbert Torres intensely roaring back with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Arnold Van Opstal’s 13 and 14, off his usual brilliance in the post. Jeron Teng’s decisive and controlled array of pivots, double clutches and three-point plays. And of course, LA Revilla’s behind the back pass with the left hand to Jason Perkins for the open 3 to open the third quarter.
But in the world of Coach Juno Sauler where execution and endlessly finding the things to improve on are king, you don’t get to celebrate anything unless you’ve actually won it all.
It could be a better defensive scheme for Jeric Teng, better offensive execution in the final minutes as La Salle did go scoreless in the final stretch, or maybe something new that we’ve all never seen before. Whatever it is, I’d bet good money that it was already brewing inside Coach Sauler’s head as early as the final buzzer sounded and formulating as he was going over the stat sheet during the post-game interview
No drama, no nonsense. Just results. One more win for the crown. I am certain that just like his players, we’d all follow this man into any kind of war, chanting “Hail, Hail, Hail” until the end.