Six minutes and thirty-nine seconds remained in the third period. Jeric Teng once more exploited what little separation he had from his defender and popped another jumper that splashed through the net. Fifteen points stood between his Growling Tigers and the Green Archers, 40-25, and La Salle mentor Juno Sauler called for a ceasefire as pandemonium erupted on one side of the Mall of Asia Arena while a silence that was palpable hung in the air over the other.
It was the biggest game of their lives, and they faced one of the largest deficits in the entire season, and as the ball was put in play in the next possession, the Archers knew that they had to mount a fightback unlike any they have attempted before.
Their rally was anything but furious at first, like the slow trickling of water small holes bored through a seemingly impassable wall. Almond Vosotros connected on a jumper to cut the lead to baker’s dozen, while Jeron Teng went two-for-two at the line to inject life into the La Salle crowd. The Tigers, however, kept finding Karim Abdul under the basket, and the Cameroonian would score back-to-back baskets underneath to stymie the Archers’ comeback.
Most Improved Player Arnold Van Opstal and Mythical Five member Jason Perkins, however, soon joined in the fray, and the Archers would further cut into the Tigers’ lead. Perkins muscled his way through for a deuce, while Teng had an easy lay-up. Vosotros nailed a booming triple, while Teng once more outran his defender for another score inside. And when an Archer found a wide-open Thomas Torres at the left corner, the sophomore out of La Salle Greenhills rifled in a triple that swung the lead in De La Salle’s favor.
At this point, the dam had burst and water was rushing freely. A fifteen point lead had been erased in roughly six minutes through a searing 22-6 run. One of the biggest comebacks engineered by the Archers was almost complete. UST’s Jamil Sheriff scored off a recovery to beat the buzzer at the end of the third to give the Tigers a one-point lead against La Salle, but it was clear that the momentum had shifted in favor of the Archers.
And it was during the final period when the game lived up to its lofty billing of being a thriller, as La Salle resumed their scoring spree courtesy of a putback by Jason Perkins, giving them a 50-48 cushion. Abdul and Jeric Teng, however, would always keep the Tigers in step, with Abdul barreling past Van Opstal in the shaded lane and Teng scoring a lay-up on a La Salle possession that unexpectedly turned into a UST fastbreak.
The tandem of Teng and Abdul scored all of UST’s field goals in the period, and after a wide-open triple by Teng and two charities by Abdul, La Salle once more stared at a 61-56 disadvantage, with a little more than four minutes left in regulation. Kevin Ferrer, the hero of the opener, had a chance to push their lead to seven, but, with nerves and a smattering of jeers from La Salle supporters coming into play, he missed two free throws that left the door ajar for the Archers to even things up.
And if they were able to overhaul a 15-point deficit, they sure can erase a five-point UST lead, which they need in the very next possession, when Teng scored another basket after being fouled by Ferrer, giving him a bonus free throw. The King Archer, however, had cramps at this point in the match, so it was Thomas Torres who took the additional free throw.
An empty UST possession later and La Salle finally knotted things up courtesy of another basket by Teng. Ferrer would be sent to the line once more and would make both his freebies, but an uncontested lay-up by Perkins that surprised the UST defenders tied things up once more.
Teng finally gave the Archers a slim two-point edge, 65-63, on a lay-up, but Aljon Mariano nailed two free throws to tie things up. In the next La Salle possession, Teng, near the top of the key, fired a pass to Van Opstal that was too high, and the ball sailed out of bounds, giving UST possession with six seconds left in regulation.
Mariano dribbled out the clock, made a move against Perkins, and launched a sixteen footer that bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded. The game, and the series, was headed for an extra session.
Vosotros broke the ice in overtime with a basket off a steal by Thomas Torres, 3:35 left in the extension, handing the Archers a 67-65 advantage which they would preserve until Ferrer scored a twinner over Vosotros to tie the game with a minute and seventeen left.
Jeric Teng, in his UAAP swan song, nailed a baseline jumper over Vosotros that gave UST the lead for the last time, 69-67, with thirty-six seconds left. His younger brother, however, drove and fished for a foul in the next possession, making one of two free throws.
The Tigers had possession of the ball after the missed free throw, but Mariano threw a wild pass that gave the ball back to the Green Archers. As La Salle got the ball back, Teng looked for a teammate and found one: Vosotros, who launched a jumper near the baseline the found the bottom of the net. The score was 70-69, and with nineteen seconds left, the Archers had wrested the lead for good.
Abdul tried to take matters into his own hands for the Tigers, but his drive to the basket missed, and as the ball was batted around, it ended up in the hands of LA Revilla, who was fouled by Abdul. Revilla made one out of two, and Abdul once more barreled his way inside to try to score for the Tigers, but found himself obstructed by Teng and Van Opstal. The ball went out of bounds, and there were 2.3 ticks left on the clock.
The ball was once more handed to Abdul, and he settled for a tough jumper that missed as time expired. The final horn had sounded, the game was over. La Salle’s biggest comeback of the season was complete.
The younger Teng raised one hand in victory as white confetti rained down at center court, and shared an intimate moment with his elder brother Jeric. “When the buzzer sounded, I didn’t know how to feel,” he later confessed. “One part of me wanted to celebrate, but another part felt sad because I felt my brother’s pain.”
The other Archers pogo-ed up and down the parquet floor. Several of them, along with some fans and supporters at the stands, were shedding tears. LA Revilla somehow found himself atop one of the baskets and was busy cutting the net. White championship t-shirts were being handed left and right.
One man, however, remained calm and collected, the man who had piloted the team through triumphs and trials, through victories and defeats. But when Juno Sauler was hoisted up by Arnold Van Opstal and a couple of other Archers as well as other members of the staff, while being showered by cheers of ”Juno! Juno!” by the La Salle community, he finally broke into a smile.
Down for most of the game, the Archers unloaded a huge run in the third quarter, then withstood UST’s duo of Abdul and Teng before delivering clutch baskets down the stretch to finally outlast them in overtime, 71-69, earlier today at the Mall of Asia Arena to win the UAAP Season 76 Men’s Basketball crown.
The win marked La Salle’s first championship since 2007, when, under Franz Pumaren, they upended a UE Red Warriors side that had swept the elimination round, and also marked La Salle’s eighth Men’s Basketball title in the UAAP. Coach Juno Sauler, who was announced as the Archers’ coach three weeks before the season started, also became the first rookie coach to deliver a championship since Pido Jarencio managed the feat with UST in 2006.
Jeron Teng finished with 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block to lead the Archers. He was later on adjudged as the Finals MVP of the series, the first Archer since JV Casio and Cholo Villanueva were declared as co-MVPs in 2007. Vosotros added 16 points, five boards, an assist, and a block, while Jason Perkins banged in 13 points and hauled down a staggering 18 rebounds, while also adding two assists. Van Opstal rounded out the four Archers who finished in double figures, finishing with 11 points, eight boards, and two blocks.
Teng, however, credited the rest of his teammates and the coaching staff for the win, “Hindi lang ako yung nag-lead, pati yung buong team at young coaches.”
The game served as a microcosm of the Archers’ season, as they were down early until the blistering third period rally. The team also had to overhaul a 0-1 deficit in the series after dropping the opener, 72-73, and started the season by dropping four of their seven matches during the first round. But since losing a 63-56 decision against the NU Bulldogs last July 28, the team went on a tear, sweeping the second round and winning 11 of their last 12 matches.
But they had to go through the wringer before notching this all-important win. After a tight first quarter that was ended with a triple by Ferrer that gave UST a 16-18 lead, the Archers could only muster eight points in the second period, as Abdul and Teng netted eight and six, respectively, as La Salle headed into the dug-out down by eight, 24-32.
For the Tigers, it was Mythical Five member Abdul who led the Tigers’ gallant effort, wounding up with 26 points, eight boards, three steals, and a block, while Jeric Teng ended up with 24 points, six rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Mariano, who was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer during the season, only had three points, all of free throws, although he had ten boards, while Ferrer, the hero of the opening game, could only muster seven points, six boards, three assists, and a steal.
At the post-game press conference, Sauler was asked on whether or not the feeling of being champions has finally sunk in. “Hindi pa rin eh,” he said.
“Bakit kaya, Coach?”
“Hindi ko alam eh,” was the answer of the Assistant Coach of the Brgy. Ginebra Kings of the PBA, eliciting laughs from the press room.
“But are you finally happy, or satisfied?” asked a female media member.
“Of course, winning. But there is something more important than winning.”
“Continuing to improve on a daily basis. I’d rather be the best at what I do, rather than be champions and not the best.”
And it is this same hardworking mantra of constant practice and improvement that Sauler has been preaching which has propelled the Archers atop the UAAP mountain.
La Salle– 71- Teng-25, Vosotros-16, Perkins-13, Van Opstal-11, T. Torres-4, N. Torres-1, Revilla-1, Tampus-0, Salem-0
UST– 69- Abdul-26, Teng-24, Ferrer-7, Bautista-4, Mariano-3, Sheriff-2, Lao-2, Pe-1
Quarterscores: 16-18, 24-32, 47-48, 65-65 71-69 (OT)