La Salle vs UST Finals Game 3 Reaction: Unconquered

A few hours after the Green Archers’ final practice a day before Game 3 of the epic finals of this year’s UAAP men’s basketball season, probably the one thing that struck me the most in an uninhibited, laidback lunch with the team’s coaching staff was Coach Juno Sauler mentioning how he used the final lines from a poem by William Ernest Henley to prepare his boys for the second round game against the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

“I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul” from Invictus, the Latin word for Unconquerable.

In a conversation that revealed how assistant coach Jun Limpot is the most serene one of the group with his Buddhist-like perspective on the need to have a firm grasp on one’s spiritual center amidst all forms of external chaos, how assistant coach Allan Caidic admits without shame that even basketball legends must learn how to brush off harsh inanities such as online trolling, or how these mentors can still enjoy a relaxed, hearty meal less than 24 hours before the most defining moment of their UAAP coaching careers so far, it is Coach Sauler’s approach to the game, perfectly melding mind and heart, that ultimately makes all the difference in turning a good team into a championship team.

We all know the rough start this La Salle team went through, learning a brand new system of a rookie coach put in place less than a month before the season started. The 3-4 record after the first round. Those back to back meltdown losses against FEU and UE. All the criticism about lack of passion and fighting spirit, seemingly unbalanced and inconsistent approaches to offense and defense, certain players going rogue in the course of a game, inefficient free throw shooting. I could go on and on.

After all, this is a team playing and fighting for a piece of glory in the name of a proud institution that does not settle for anything less than excellence in all endeavors. We don’t take losing sitting down in the same manner we know winning must be earned and is something you must work for. But this is not about that anymore. This is not even about the sweep of the second round and the final four, and the gradual turnaround of the team and the evolution of its individual parts. None of those mattered anymore, as the season boiled down to a single game against another hungry team on its own quest for greatness.

Seeing both teams look sharp and hitting their first few shots to open the game, UST gradually pulled ahead and found itself on top by 8 at the half courtesy of the Growling Tigers turning the tables and assuming the role of aggressors by dominating the offensive boards 13-8, as well as ensuring they had more possessions and cracks at the basket as evidenced by their 40 field goal attempts compared to La Salle’s 28. And after averaging just 9 turnovers the previous two games, the Green Archers had already committed 10.

We all couldn’t be blamed for hoping to see something closer to the team’s most dominant win of the season in Game 2 en route to the championship title, but this final game followed the same script as those games during the 9-game winning streak. A win had to be fought for. And a championship isn’t won on the basis of simply wanting it. Before being called champions, worthiness must always be proven.

Red-hot Jeric Teng and the rest of the Tigers seemed to be staking their own claim with ferocity coming out of halftime, building a 15-point lead with a little over 6 minutes left in the third quarter. And in an arena housing a record-breaking crowd that continuously brought the noise even before tipoff, for a moment the La Sallians fell quiet. A palpable air of anxiety crept up as Coach Sauler called for time. As the team regrouped for one more push, so did the crowd in green. A few scattered battle cries quckly turned into a collective mass of thunderous sound. “Animo La Salle.” And a slow exchange of points between the two teams turned into a 22-6 run that had La Salle leading by 1 before a buzzer beater by Jamil Sheriff ended the quarter. Animo La Salle.

Time and again we’ve seen it happen during the winning streak. The refusal to lose. It was just a matter of time. Starting with a few points off a jumper and free throws, Arnold Van Opstal and Jason Perkins started coming alive and reminding everyone that the paint is La Salle territory. Then the outside game followed off good ball rotation to find the open man, courtesy of Thomas Torres and Almond Vosotros. Finals MVP Jeron Teng fighting and pivoting his way inside. The Green Machine was kicking into high gear once again. It was just a matter of time.

And proving even more that championships must be fought for tooth and nail, with both teams playing to their strengths and displaying equal hunger and heart, and the Green Archers digging deep to overcome a 5-point lead with barely four minutes left, a bad pass to Van Opstal in the post and Aljon Mariano’s jumper falling short closed out regulation. With all the drama and engaging narratives running through this historic finals series– stories of sibling rivalry, coaches coming from polar opposites and two teams with unique turnaround seasons– overtime just seemed appropriate. Extra minutes with everything on the line and all the desired endings to all storylines hanging in the balance.

It was an ugly, grueling overtime period as only 10 points were scored by both teams. After a basket by Vosotros, the Green Archers played as if they were running on empty, even playing through cramps, as multiple turnovers and breaks of the game seemed to be pushing the Tigers closer to the title. We all know how it was the baseline jumper by Vostoros and LA Revilla’s free throw that gave La Salle the win, both doing poetic justice proud with the former enduring season-long criticism and the latter playing through an off-night. But I felt the turning point was Coach Sauler at his most emphatic with fingers pointing to his temples and screaming at his boys.

In that moment it was clear what separates champions from contenders; greatness from simply being good. From where I was seated, not only was that the game’s defining moment, but the perfect image to encapsulate the entire championship season of the De La Salle Green Archers. You can’t rely on luck or breaks of the game because these merely provide opportunities to achieve greatness. Keeping your head in the game and sticking to what has brought you to the brink makes all the difference. That, and absolutely all the fight you have left in your heart.

A quote from Friedrich Nietzsche used by Coach Sauler to motivate his boys before the second round game against FEU also perhaps brings us closer to what truly defines a champion and what greatness is made of in the eyes of this man: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

The sense of purpose and meaning in what you do, in why these players choose to play for their alma mater and continue fighting in the face of criticism, adversity and seemingly overbearing odds. Because in a league where it’s easy to be a character and be swept up by all the exterior noise, it is hardest to have character. The character to have the same focus and dignity in losing as well as in winning. The character that makes a triumphant crowd chant UST’s own battle cry in recognition of an honorable match. The character to realize that winning the championship transcends merely earning bragging rights. The character which certifies that the pride we all share now is the same pride we firmly grasp in moments of both greatness and defeat.

For the players who shed extra tears, almost kneeling on the hardcourt to take it all in after going through those lean years of missing the final four, for those who accepted their roles on the team whether it be cheering from the bench or sacrificing minutes or making the most out of limited playing time, and for a community of supporters who kept the faith in moments when it was much easier to doubt, the final buzzer of that final game made us all champions. Standing proud. High and Bright. Unbowed. Unconquered.

After we’ve all recovered from that classic game that even had a friend without any personal stake in either university screaming her head off at all the suspense and drama, after the dust has settled from a UAAP season full of incredible moments and heart wrenching narratives, and after we’re all done basking in the glory of this team on Thursday’s celebration, there is one man whom I am certain will resume his quest for that unique kind of greatness much earlier than the rest.

I’m fairly assured Coach Juno Sauler will not be slighted when I say I hope his personal, unyielding quest for that perfect game never reaches its end. With that perfect game remaining elusive, his drive to ceaselessly find ways on how to improve even minutes after being crowned champions will only serve the team and the entire Lasallian community well. Ensuring that we all remain unconquered for a long, long time.