La Salle vs Ateneo Game Reaction: Zen and the Art of Championship Maintenance

In the quest for title retention, the formula is deceivingly simple and unconventional in nature for Coach Juno Sauler and the De La Salle Green Archers: Allow tremendous hype to build up around them as early as the postseason while not allowing any of it to penetrate the team’s psyche, lose the first two games of the season with shades of struggle and disarray, then slowly rack up a 6-game winning streak while dealing with injuries to two starters and their respective backups, and consequently using a bulk of inexperienced players at the forefront. All while not even halfway towards peaking and running on all cylinders.

Deceivingly simple. Unconventional. And fundamentally much more intricate than meets the eye. Just another day in the office for Coach Sauler and the De La Salle way.

As if last season’s run hasn’t driven home the overlying narrative enough, the Coach Sauler edition of the Green Archers thrives best when counted out and in the face of adversity. After sufficiently regaining momentum lost from those back-to-back first round losses, it was then a slew of injuries to a handful of key players and a bit of a scheduling kerfuffle that became the new source of noise coming into Sunday’s game against the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

With a shorthanded lineup and limited preparation time in question, all the calm to counter the tremendous anxiety and pressure for the crucial match up could be encapsulated in Coach Sauler’s brief, cool as ice reply two days before: “Any day, sir.”

True enough, the rematch between two storied rivals lived up to its billing, as both the final score and major statistical categories reflected all the hardcourt intensity. Both teams ending up nearly dead even in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, fast break points and turnovers, resulting in a high quality basketball game definitely worthy of all the attention it garnered.

While in the aftermath all praises were heaved on La Salle’s defense on Kiefer Ravena, particularly by both Julian Sargent and Robert Bolick (with the former duly promoted in rank by the Green Fans army, and the latter generally reducing Von Pessumal’s sniping to a non-factor), the current that ran through the course of the game and through the entire fabric of this team again moves us a step closer to its true nature. Always adapting and evolving, yet staying true to its core: enjoying the game they all love by playing it exactly how it should be played, always being driven to improve while never losing a firm sense of purpose.

Because in the world of Coach Sauler and the Green Archers, where the institution they represent is king and all else are just pawns fighting for its glory, basketball numbers meet incalculable heart, logic blends harmoniously with emotion, and only actions and results are allowed to speak volumes. All in pursuit of a larger goal that can only be won by mindfully engaging in all the day-to-day nitty gritty battles often overlooked by most.

We can see it in the constantly evolving game of Jeron Teng, who has chosen to take a page out of Coach Sauler’s playbook of life by defining his brief reply to brotherly advice (“Ako bahala”) as placing the team on his broad shoulders. Going on a rampage for 32 points—the most points scored in a rivalry game since Joseph Yeo—he dictated the furious pace of the game right from the opening tip and provided enough space for the Green Archers to come away with the win in the clutch.

Teng’s game, once evoking winces and groans from even the La Sallian faithful due to his habit of straying from plays and tendency to take ill-advised shots—along with really bad free throw shooting—has slowly gained just the right amount of control coupled with just a little more power, reading the opponent’s defense well and making them pay by either scoring at will or involving his teammates with timely passes. Not to mention the capability to lead the team in rebounding in one game, and in assists in another. Understanding that his game necessarily will involve him in late game situations at the stripe, he once frankly admitted being fully aware of all the criticism. Going 17-20 from the free throw line in Sunday’s game (and 10-11 against UST) has done all the talking.

We can also see these opposing forces at work in the emergence of Sargent and Bolick, playing huge roles in the team’s most critical game so far. Transcending inexperience and previously being relegated in the regular rotations, both allowed their desire to prove their worth and get the job done efficiently to coincide with nearly every single minute Ravena spent on the court; digging in and going eye to eye, mindful of the screens and fighting to go over each one while also fully aware of floor spacing and where the help would be coming from.

More than Ravena’s poor field goal shooting and despite exploding for 15 points in the second quarter, it was his 7 points in the entire second half, exhausted arms and legs resulting in countless tough shots and at least four airballs when the game could have still gone either way, that spoke best of the La Sallian defense.

With Bolick wearing his heart on his sleeve and just firing away with the same trust in his shot as that given by his entire team, Sargent plays more stealthily. With both hands full covering his defensive assignment, there was still enough gas to scramble for every loose ball and rush downcourt to negate possible transition attacks. Capped off by a crucial, wide open three-point shot from a cross court pass by Teng as Ravena fell asleep on defense.

At the end, with Arnold Van Opstal offering his congratulations as both raised their fists in victory, Sargent could only muster a slight grin while finally letting his head bow down. Still possibly unsure if he could already allow himself to buckle, that was a clear picture of a player who left it all on the court.

It also can be gleaned from the smooth, steady play of Jason Perkins, knowing when to take matters in his own hands and barrel through whatever defense is given, or take the outside shot either off the dribble or when left open by the double team with the game on the line, all in the flow and mindful of on court situations. Or in Almond Vosotros, who has also never lost the trust of his team despite inexplicably being the recipient of much negativity, now knowing with relief that there are a growing number of teammates willing to take the shots at any given point as he takes over the bulk of point guard duties with Thomas Torres and Kib Montalbo nursing injuries.

It didn’t happen right off the bat—as it seldom does—but each cog on this team gunning for back-to-back titles has slowly gained full comprehension of their respective roles, as especially exemplified in the tough and ever blossoming game of Prince Rivero. Giving it all in practices and always being ready to play. Because even with erratic rotations and off the book substitutions, along with still grasping for offensive and defensive cohesion, Coach Sauler has led by example and made it clear that even the slightest griping and individual pursuits can never be part of the grand scheme of things.

By trusting the system, we can now see a lean, mean Green Archer title-retention machine gradually gaining steam. Partly with the same core as last season’s yet now just a little more fluid and athletic. Quicker yet more efficient, with 12 fast break points and a relatively low 12 turnovers in Sunday’s win. Just a bit more flexibility on both ends, now able to both defend and employ disciplined halfcourt sets, a running game or individual attacks. And just a little more composed, as each Ateneo run was met with assured, patient passing and ball rotation to catch the defense off guard, mostly benefitting Rivero and Sargent constantly moving without the ball and cutting into the paint.

As always, the Green Archers could have still undoubtedly played better, with a few defensive lapses on the perimeter in the midst of the second half Blue Eagle comeback, and inside dominance suffering ever so slightly as Norbert Torres and Van Opstal have yet to play with optimum health. Despite the team also not coming away with its trademark rebounding edge, a 6-game winning streak is no trivial matter even as Coach Sauler and his boys are still striving for ideal form and balance.

This maniacal and methodical pursuit of excellence isn’t a pretense or a head coach playing coy, easily misconstrued as a lack of appreciation or contentment even with a 3-0 record in tournament championships in his first full year. It’s a tactician who is also equal parts mentor, fully aware of where the coexistence of daily struggles and small triumphs takes place with keeping eyes glued on the bigger picture. With actions rooted in faith as cultivated by his alma mater, it all seems to be rubbing off well on his wards.

Knowing when to reach for his bag of fundamentals backed by a couple of legendary assistant coaches, or into his pockets thick with motivational thrusts that he himself embodies to nurture his players, it is a line from Robert Pirsig’s seminal work that comes to mind to contextualize the Green Archers’ current stop along the road to title defense. A line espoused by Coach Sauler during his early forays into social media, pertaining to the flawed nature of striving for values and ideals: “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

Silence wielded well is stronger than the reckless exercise of power, Coach Sauler adds to the mix. Because truth often remains elusive in the wild, frenzied hoops spectacle that is UAAP men’s basketball; where a team reigning over the first round of eliminations has on more than a few occasions found itself catching the last couple of games of the season from the comforts of home.

But at the tail end of a 6-game run and more formidable opponents to be faced, there are a few concrete truths we can hold onto with certainty: that nothing comes close to the atmosphere of an Ateneo-La Salle game, that good hardnosed basketball always trumps theatrics, and that taking the crown from these proud and ever-hungry defending champions who do all their talking on the court will never be that easy.