The UAAP ushered Season 77 with a universe-themed party. Eight huge spheres hanging from the rafters could have easily been disco balls with they way the defending men’s basketball champions, De La Salle University danced and boogied its way to a huge 13 point lead, 23-10 versus Far Eastern University at the end of the first period.
The Tamaraws were caught dancing with two left feet, getting into early penalty while only converting three field goals. Much to the delight the Green and White gallery, La Salle got its inside and outside game going, even converting nine of 10 free throws.
Even the La Salle coaching staff were dressed to the occasion, wearing matching white jackets with green ties and pants.
After the first 10 minutes, the music changed and suddenly the Tamaraws were able to keep in step with the moves of the Green Archers. DLSU head coach Juno Sauler inserted his bench players to start the second period, and it seems like his reserves forgot their routine, slowly surrendering their big lead. A combination of bad habits and a determined and dangerous foe, La Salle dropped its first game, 77-82.
The Archers could not keep to the FEU beat, trailing in every quarter after the first, 14-23, 22-24, 18-25, with Mac Belo scoring 13 of his total 20 in the first half while Mike Tolomia scorching La Salle’s perimeter defenders in the second half with 20 points.
DLSU last led, 69-67, but primarily called to isolation plays down the stretch. Far Eastern meanwhile started out cold from the outside, but their dribble-drive offence finally clicked in the payoff period, extending their first round dominance over the Green Archers to six years.
Should you and I be worried? I, for one am glad that the expectation to sweep – this early in the season – is over.
Coaches of the other seven member schools pegged La Salle as the obvious favourite this year and clearly the target is on DLSU’s back. It might be opening game jitters, overconfidence, or a simple lack of focus, but it’s good for the team to play with some sort of chip on their shoulders.
If history is any indication, the Green Archers also lost their opening assignment last year against University of Santo Tomas, 58-63.
These may not bring a smile to coach Juno’s face, but he should be happy with:
Rebounding. Except for a stretch in the second quarter when FEU scored on three straight putbacks in a span of one minute, La Salle pounded the boards just like last year. The Archers grabbed a total of 49 rebounds (19 offensive) against 34 (12 offensive) for the Morayta squad.
The backcourt of Thomas Torres and Kib Montalbo. Hardly missing veteran guard, LA Revilla, Torres and Montalbo combined for 15 points, three rebounds, one assist with only two turnovers. Thomas hit a crucial three to trim the lead, 74-77, 1:49 left in the fourth while Kib showed an improved game and more confidence from his rookie campaign last year.
Passing big men. The La Salle frontline made timely decisions when the double team came to them. Almond Vosotros benefitted from those kick-out passes, getting open looks to go three out of six from 3-point range.
With coach Juno’s philosophy of improving game by game, he should first focus his sights on:
Mid-range game. It was frustrating to see big man Arnold Van Opstal struggle to score against a smaller player in Carl Cruz. After his initial defender, American Anthony Hargrove picked up his third foul early in the second period, Cruz was the primary defender of AVO. Instead of waiting for the double team or maneuvering his way inside, a shot stab or a 12-foot bank shot would have been pretty unstoppable.
Jeron seem to improve his three-point shooting at the expense of the other aspects of his game. Last year’s finals MVP was 2/3 from the rainbow territory but shot a paltry 2/12 from two-point range. Teng was also featured in a lot of unnecessary isolation sets late in the game, resulting in poor shots and contested fade-aways.
The bench. Stretch-forward Matt Salem was given zero playing minutes. With Jason Perkins in foul trouble and misfiring all four of his three point attempts, the sweet shooting Salem could have given space for Van Opstal and Teng to operate.
It was also alarming to the amount of minutes Vosotros played, with the 5th year guard playing 36 out of a possible 40. Sophomore Robert Bolick and rookie Julian Sargent were the primary relief players. While Sargent gave a solid effort, Bolick, in limited minutes, launched an ill-advised 3-point shot followed by a bad pass in transition.
Need we say it again, freethrows. It already sounds like a broken record. Everytime one of our front court players, not named Perkins, I clasp my hands to say a little prayer. Jeron and Norbert Torres missed three of four in the last minute of the game when the Green Archers were trailing by four, 77-81.
The boys should not be found wanting focus in their next match-up against the Ateneo Blue Eagles. It’s time to start acting like the defending UAAP champions because the rest of the pack are ready to take away the trophy from Taft.