As ferocious as a rampaging Dothraki horde, and as intricately designed as a Walter White revenge scheme, the full court press of the UE Red Warriors will definitely be slipping in and out of the nightmares of the De La Salle Green Archers and its supporters long after yesterday’s game, yielding results on the stat sheet as gruesome as a Quentin Tarantino fight scene.
The biggest question, of course, is how on earth can a team still pull out a win in spite of committing 36 turnovers? While the victory still leaves a lot of the La Sallian faithful frustrated and anxious about the true state of the Green Archers’ championship retention bid, I still remain assured because of the emergence of another aspect prevalent during last year’s run: hardnosed, bruising, nitty gritty, pulled-from-the-gut championship caliber defense.
Because while the UE press orchestrated by Derrick and Dindo Pumaren (aptly signaled from the bench through a choking gesture) remains unsolved, with defenders methodically trapping the smaller La Salle ballhandlers mainly with their length to negate passing angles and court vision even before the inbounds play after every scored basket, I suppose one way to counter it is to prevent the Red Warriors from scoring.
Count me among those left bewildered, exhausted and relatively exasperated after yesterday’s grueling win. Still no sight of the well-oiled blowout machine we all desperately crave for. Far from it. But a number of the healthy championship symptoms are there: the feistiness, the energy to crawl back from a deficit, the cohesive team play in the crucial stretch, and a bit of the swagger that simply says this team won’t be pushed around and bullied into losing games.
It truly is a fascinating, albeit appalling, story that can be gleaned from the stat sheet. But while those 36 turnovers—committed on everything from passing errors to 8-second violations—were indeed a basketball travesty, a relieving number is the mere 19 points scored by UE off those errors. Along with Derick Pumaren’s boys shooting a miserable 31% from the field, we all have to appreciate the fact that even as La Salle’s offense was blitzed by the press, the defense of Coach Sauler’s boy’s was stingy as well; save for some stretches, mostly being quick around the picks and switches to guard the perimeter in addition to bodying up and clogging the paint.
This early it is becoming clear that while several cogs have yet to work as Coach Sauler requires, endurance, composure and persistence are still huge factors in drawing the line that distinguishes champions from mere contenders. As UE’s scrappy trappers started to wear down and their big men got into foul trouble, this La Salle team still had enough gas well into the fourth quarter even in the face of a double digit deficit and at that point already 32 turnovers in its pocket.
A pending UE full court press headline victory ode turned into a fourth quarter Green Archers comeback story as a suddenly composed La Salle squad outscored UE 24-12, while committing only 4 turnovers in the final 10 minutes, after spewing 1 (1.06 to be exact) error a minute in the first three quarters of the game. The rebounding edge, 48-35, showing the trademark inside dominance also bode well for the Green Archers, yielding key plays during the last seven minutes of the game that were initiated by offensive rebounds on one end and limiting second chance points on the other.
In what has to be the most consistent stretch in his college basketball career, Norbert Torres is staking his claim as a very critical piece in La Salle’s bid for back to back titles. Never having griped about taking the backseat to Arnold Van Opstal last season or over having limited playing minutes, he has stepped up the past two games to provide the inside toughness which is really integral to the character of this team. With 14 points and 14 rebounds, it should provide comfort that as some weapons in Coach Sauler’s arsenal may as yet fire blanks, others will gladly, furiously step in. Staying true to last year’s tune of leaving opponents unsure of whom they need to shut down offensively to steal a win.
Definitely another welcome revelation was Prince Rivero. Entrusted with crucial minutes after the 5th foul of Van Opstal, Rivero has proven his worth to all by being part of late game plays in yesterday’s win, hopefully ingraining himself in the bench rotations in future games. Displaying much of the spunk and versatility he showed in the Filoil tournament, this just proves that always being ready to play reaps dividends, especially since Coach Sauler continues to use his bench erratically, still testing the chops of his less seasoned players.
This only adds emphasis to the grave importance of Jeron Teng nurturing his all-around game. Looking more like the Jeron Teng in last year’s 2nd round elimination sweep–happy to play decoy and staying sharp to make last second drop passes in the paint–he will benefit from proving that age old sports cliché, that true superstars make their teammates better. And it starts with trust. Moreover, as defenders become uncertain of what he will do, instead of the usual isolation plays resulting in forced shots, Teng can create easier baskets for himself.
Although backcourt woes are still a heated topic on the minds of the La Sallian fathful, Kib Montalbo likewise continues to prove that he will always be up to the challenge, showing the same feistiness on defense as in his breakout game last year against RR Garcia and the FEU Tamaraws. What better way to end yesterday’s game with Montalbo’s good, solid defense on Roi Sumag’s last second isolation play, ending in a potential game-tying shot falling short.
As we all hope Jason Perkins continues to learn that foul trouble has been his only glaring flaw, as we patiently wait for Van Opstal to climb out of the puzzling rut he’s in, as we continue to trust every shot Almond Vosotros takes without hesitation as really the best and only means to break out of a shooting slump, and as we encourage other bench players and rookies to slowly prove their worth, comfort lies in the knowledge that this La Salle machine can still move forward, a win closer to title retention, despite not running on all cylinders. Yet.
It’s not the glory that this set of Green Archers has brought us which makes my faith and support as fervent as ever, nor the memorable games continuously being logged in the annals of UAAP history. It’s the depth of character that Coach Sauler has instilled, and continues to instill, in his players. Driving them to ensure in the end they stand like men amongst boys. Marking the oft-forgotten difference between having character and merely being a character. And consequently imparting life lessons to a fan like me.
Patience. Perseverance. Passion. Pushing forward in the face of adversity and not losing your head in the sea of fluff. Valuing the process as much as the goal. Reminding us that there is no room for playground antics and shenanigans in the quest for excellence. All by continuing to define what nasty championship mettle really means.