Kib Montalbo waxing hot from the perimeter. Prince Rivero proving he ain’t a one-game fluke. Yutien Andrada re-schooling the league on the art of the undergoal stab. Julian Sargent running the floor and utilizing his length to the hilt. Robert Bolick slicing through the lane. And a Terrence Mustre sighting to boot.
If the win against the UE Red Warriors proves that the Green Archers can still come up on top despite committing a ghastly amount of turnovers, Saturday’s match against the Adamson Falcons showed that this La Salle team can move up another notch in the win column in spite of just 4 points scored between its two MVP candidates—Jeron Teng and Jason Perkins—and with its version of the Twin Towers sitting it out completely to nurse respective injuries.
Nearing the match up against the generally disorganized Falcons who are sailing along very rough waters this season, I had an ideal scenario blueprinted in my head: Let the starters break the game open early to allow the bench players to strut their stuff and show their wares in extended minutes, hopefully acquiring much needed confidence in the process this early in the season.
Never one to enjoy kicking another team when it’s down or basking in the misfortunes of others, one could still not blame me or the rest of the La Sallian faithful as this scenario still seemed shaky at halftime, with just a 5-point lead for Coach Juno Sauler and his boys at 23-18.
And with a little over 7 minutes to play in the third quarter, the lead stood at 8. Still a 2-possession game, if you count back-to-back 4-point plays among the slew of possibilities. Far from comfortable. But as Jeron Teng was relived for the last time, I felt strangely calmed by the La Salle five on the floor shuffled up and dealt by Coach Sauler: Montalbo, Rivero, Andrada, Sargent and Bolick.
True enough, roughly 7 minutes later the lead stood at 16 as that Fab Five quickly showed spring in their step on both ends of the floor, quickening the pace and forcing consecutive errors on the part of Adamson to step on the gas and fuel a previously slow-paced game, yielding both decisive baskets easy points.
Even a casual glance at the numbers provide optimistic perspectives: Only averaging 12 assists per game, the Green Archers dished out 23 on Saturday. This definitely had much to do with quicker, more assertive offensive movement and a surprising running game, not the team’s strong suit being a slow unit as admitted by Coach Sauler himself. Allowing the lead to reach comfortable levels, there were more outlet passes for fast break points, 23 in all compared to the average of 12 in the previous four games.
The more obvious, most interesting number of course would be bench points. With the La Salle bench averaging only 17.7 points of the total 70 per game in the first four games, unsurprisingly this La Salle team relies heavily on the stellar performance of its starting unit. Against the Falcons, the Green Archer reserves scored 30 points, led by now the team’s top sixth man, Rivero, with 12.
Above all, it was Montalbo’s perimeter shooting that has me most excited. Aside from now ingraining himself among those that can be tapped to provide offense that will surely benefit from passes off double teams in the post, it also signifies the added flexibility to La Salle’s halfcourt game that doesn’t necessarily have to be a three-point shot.
The Green Archers like shooting from beyond the arc. That goes without saying. But to again rely on numbers to put this aspect in perspective, they averaged nearly 20 attempts per game in Season 76. In the two losses this season, 26. And we all know the shooting averages have been far from spectacular. But in the current three game win streak, attempts have been down to 14 an outing.
Which is why it’s highly comforting to know that Montalbo’s performance can provide a little more unpredictability for perimeter defenders, and maybe even a remedy for the likes of Almond Vosotros who has yet to find his stroke. Possibly a dribble or two to just get inside the three-point line can help. I’ve never been deluded enough to consider myself an outside shooter, but all I know is he’ll get his heat back. For now, I’m still comfortable with Vosotros taking those shots because his mere presence constantly gives the other team a defensive assignment they can’t fall asleep on. A mark of a dangerous shooter—even one in a slump—is how rarely he is left uncovered by his defender.
But the excellent play of Montalbo, Rivero and the rest of the reserves will also serve the entire championship retention campaign well as the grueling UAAP men’s basketball season wears on. This La Salle team has always been remarkably conditioned, but reliable minutes from the bench and an extended rotation may do wonders collectively and individually, as players such as Vostoros and Teng have been norming heavy minutes so far, 35 and 30 respectively in their first four games.
Of course we all know the familiar players that will be relied on when the stakes are much higher. Case in point: the knockout game in the semifinals of the recent PCCL against San Beda when an injured Arnold Van Opstal was still tapped to relieve Norbert Torres and play in crucial stretches. And tougher teams this season will definitely face the sharpest weapons in Coach Sauler’s steadily thickening arsenal.
But it’s all part of the Juno Sauler experience, with this season’s journey so far nearly proving to be as interesting as last season’s title run. Never one to lay all his cards on the table, it is still clear that the only expectations this La Salle team tries to live up to from game to game are the ones this coach sets for them. And even as every win reveals a new facet to this team that mainly runs on character, Coach Sauler still manages to find different ways to reinforce an unshakeable sense of purpose in his boys.
The precedence of collective glory over individual pursuits. Playing with the purest of intentions. And sometimes simply enjoying the game they all fervently love. Or all of the above, as personally I felt Saturday’s win was the type of victory both the team and its supporters desperately deserved—watching the players on the bench join in the coliseum-wide clamor for Mustre or celebrate heartily as Abu Tratter broke away for a much awaited slam–in light of the tough opening schedule and early missteps in previous games.
All growing pains, more than anything. All the criticism, struggles and grasping for cohesion. Falling in line with part of Coach Sauler’s preseason motivational thrust, that last year’s revelry has nothing to do with this season’s goals, being privileged to support this team and enjoying the ride still remains part of the status quo.
There’s so much more basketball to be played, and a number of pieces in the championship puzzle to be tweaked. But looking to the next two games to close out the first round of eliminations seems just a bit easier now, especially as I now know that it’s mainly an injury Arnold Van Opstal needs to allow to heal, that more than a few good men occupy the La Salle bench, and that the debatable aesthetics of the color of one’s pants really doesn’t at all deter the pursuit of excellence.