It was exactly a year ago today, in the first round of Season 76, when the Green Archers came away with a similarly much needed morale-enhancing win over the then feistier Adamson Falcons. It was likewise a relatively ugly, grinding win; but coming off those two infamous “meltdown losses” against the FEU Tamaraws and UE Red Warriors, it did wonders for both the team and the La Sallian faithful.
While it is largely true that there are literally no “times 2” victories in basketball as top Blue Eagles Coach Bo Perasol and Kiefer Ravena charitably sound-byted for us after their win on Sunday, we all know that there are wins that go beyond the simple movements of one’s win-loss record on paper. Single wins with enough momentum that can turn losing streaks into championship runs. Wins that mend previously iron-clad psyches. And in the case of Wednesday’s game against the NU Bulldogs, wins that evoke a collective sigh of relief even for just a few more days.
And a win iced by a brilliant inbounds play by Jeron Teng to Jason Perkins right under the basket at that, both under heavy pressure from the NU defense, all in less than 1.6 seconds. Once again: Now who says nothing exciting ever happens right in the middle of a grinding workweek?
Far from being a perfect game and a comfortable victory, there are several things that bode well for the team and Animo Nation. Aside from the ability to etch out cohesive last second plays requiring teamwork and decision making under duress, the healthier number in the assists department speaks volumes for the return to team play.
Much is said about the Green Archers’ frontline strength, but personally I feel the key lies in cohesive, team basketball. As in last year’s championship run, and in key victories during succeeding preseason tournaments, the barometer of this team has been its willingness to work together rather than the ability to make stellar, individual plays. The quick passing out of double teams in the post, the ball movement around the perimeter to find the open shot and the best option, and even Jeron Teng dropping off or kicking out at the last minute after all his pivoting once he gets in the paint and is about to be smothered by multiple defenders.
It all sounds elementary and obviously textbook, but in game situations we all know team play requires mental discipline and acuity. Indeed, the ball shouldn’t stick.
Sharing the ball of course goes hand in hand with taking care of it, with La Salle’s 10 in Wednesday’s win reflecting better decision making and more controlled plays. Instead of forcing the issue even during critical moments, I could see the team’s willingness and patience to move the ball, with at least 4 passes to allow the play to evolve. And I remember a previous win when Coach Juno Sauler was asked to comment on the stellar play of Jason Perkins. “Too many turnovers’ was the only reply.
Coach Sauler’s tight rotation against NU shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I’ve noticed him reverting to this most especially during pivotal games. Wanting to ensure that the five on the floor at any given time remains tight, as well as to minimize sloppiness, we can all fondly recall the 7-man rotation during Game 2 of last year’s finals. Norbert Torres benefitted the most from the shake up in the rotations. Inserted in the starting five and coming away with 13 points and 8 rebounds, he remained aggressive for the duration of the game. He truly has been one of the heavily criticized players on this team (just listen closely to our own supporters during the games) largely because he really hasn’t emerged into a pure dominant center like Arnold Van Opstal.
While I agree that he has never seemed to evolve into the big man we all thought he would be due to the absence of instinctive big man moves in the paint once he gets the ball, he has been one cog on this team that can be relied on to provide all the hustle and energy he can muster, without exhibiting any frustration or discontent.
Almond Vosotros has also been on the receiving end of negativity whenever he blows cold just like in Wednesday’s game, going 0-9 from three point range. But along with Coach Sauler, this is something I can live with comfortably. Having baled his team out countless times despite going through shooting slumps just like in the latter part of last season’s second round of eliminations, only to regain his form just in time to nail the championship clinching shot in the final game against UST, there’s nothing else to do but keep shooting. The same goes for all the La Salle shooters who will inevitably be left open when opponents clamp down on initial post plays. That’s really the only way to regain confidence lost temporarily.
Because the balanced scoring from the inside and outside is closer to the offensive equilibrium Coach Sauler is looking for. Another statistic I was fond of from last year’s campaign was the healthy distribution of points. This isn’t a team that needs someone to score 25-30 points each time. But rather, the involvement of nearly everyone who gets playing minutes, with last season having seven players averaging 7 points or more, and five to six different players emerging as the leading scorer from game to game.
With much improved defense against NU that can only get better, especially against transition baskets and outside shooters, and with all of us still waiting for the re-emergence of Van Opstal, things can only get better. After Wednesday’s win, I’ve realized that much of the earlier disappointment to kick off the season leaned on the expectations of seeing a well-oiled rampaging machine that would blow opponents off the court. Maybe we’ll see it, maybe not. Because even during last season’s second round sweep, nearly all those wins came off final quarter comebacks.
I really can’t predict how this team will perform for the rest of the season, but I am very confident they will get to where Coach Sauler wants them to be. This is a team that seems to thrive on adversity, marching to their own beat. And with a coach that has motivated his boys through poetry, philosophy, and simple, essential reminders that the game always has to be played with the purest of intentions, I see no reason to panic.
It is a fickle animal, UAAP men’s basketball. Its history has taught us that peaking at the right time is critical, team standings can be deceiving especially this early in the season, and fortunes can drastically change in a matter of days. Formidable on one game day, a team in shambles the next. Then back again.
But one thing’s for certain. The road to the UAAP men’s basketball championship goes through Taft.