Well over a day after the Green Archers’ ugly loss to the FEU Tamaraws, there are still a few rattling images I can’t seem to get out of my head. Not the Mike Tolomia putback off his own missed free throw, his off the dribble baskets in that frenetic second half along with Alejandrino Ingo that made mincemeat of La Salle’s perimeter defenders, nor even the array of costly turnovers such as Kib Montalbo just losing the ball at halfcourt even against minimal pressure from his defender.
Rather these are images that still make me wince as much as the first time I saw them on the hardcourt two days ago: Jeron Teng having to push Julian Sargent (twice) against Tolomia to commit the foul, with Coach Juno Sauler nearly at midcourt doing everything short of hacking his own arm off to tell his boys to stop the clock. Or Teng and Montalbo looking like they were ready to rip each other’s heads off after that crucial Tolomia rebound. And of course one that is more audial: the screams of a terrifyingly furious Coach Sauer during a 3rd quarter timeout that reportedly pierced even through the lower box seats in a temporarily silent and anxious MOA Arena.
More than the 7-game winning streak coming to the end or ceding the top spot temporarily, just as it was accurately signified in my colleague’s pregame dissection of the matchup against the Tamaraws, it would’ve been a character win against our opening day tormentors and an FEU team that has frankly been playing superb team basketball since the preseason tournament. Unfortunately, in this case it turned out to be a character loss.
While there is no reason for faith to waver or hopes to sink even in the slightest that in the last few games of the season the Green Archers will be among two teams left standing, at this point in the 2nd round of eliminations one necessarily expects just a bit more from any worthy title contender. Just as I’m fairly certain Coach Sauler expects his boys to play like the title was on the line for the entire 40 minutes of every single game, no matter the opponent.
I’ve seen firsthand how hard the coaching staff pushes these players. In fact, one of the images from last year’s run seared into my memory is of the likes of Jason Perkins gasping and holding onto the bars along the sidelines of the Enrique Razon Sports Center after just undergoing suicide drills along with the rest of the team, and bracing himself for a few more. All of this right after the final whistle of a tune up game against the Perpetual Help Altas, who themselves hadn’t even left the court yet. I later confirmed that despite winning, the Green Archers just weren’t showing enough energy on that overcast day during the break in between elimination rounds.
Just like with the press, Coach Sauler is brief and concise with his words when it comes to motivating his boys. But by now, there are a few things that should be loud and clear, even to the Lasallian faithful: there will be no resting on one’s laurels for every single member of this La Salle team.
After such a loss against FEU, this now trademark relentless pursuit of excellence seems more grounded. And urgent. And necessary. Both for dealing with odds on and off the court. Because after the win against UP, which boiled down to being unacceptable because of the disorganized first three quarters that really overshadowed the win, it should be clear that it’s all about developing desirable habits.
For anyone who was still skeptical of this unyielding pursuit of playing basketball as close to perfection as possible even after the team just bagged the crown last season, it would be wise to now realize that it definitely ain’t no schtick. Because for a team that represents an institution which sets a higher standard for its community, it all starts with the little habits that need to be enacted day in and day out in order to be actualized.
Aside from turnovers that has become the largest bane of this La Salle team, just like in that opening day loss, picking apart the stat sheet for the loss against FEU doesn’t really yield clear answers. I’m sure there are purists and more scholarly pundits that can tell us otherwise. But taking my cue from the character of this team, I have no urge to throw anyone under the bus, or harp on non-calls and breaks of the game that may be interweaved with pressing social ills if there was enough delusion at hand.
But with such a tight race for positioning at this stage in the tournament, with a single loss possibly costing any team the twice to beat advantage, it’s the little things you don’t want to end up regretting. Just like a rebounding miscue on a missed free throw.
Along with all the little habits that need to be further instilled, maybe this La Salle team needs to start playing with a constant chip on its collective shoulder. From the first five down to the last player on the bench. A chip with all the external skepticism and hype etched on it. One that makes you want to prove yourself over and over again against your own standards. Being its own reward and much more gratifying than any trophy or title acquired.
Because every other team with equal motivation and hunger will bring their A-game against the defending champions. Just ask the Altas and JRU Heavy Bombers from the preseason tournament, who shed tears and celebrated like crazy after pulling off wins against the UAAP champions even in what would eventually be inconsequential games.
Because with a chip on their shoulders, it might bring out the kind of game Coach Sauler constantly demands, and close to something George “Big Daddy Kala” Tratter told his son recently, days before returning to the US with heavy heart but eager for next season and, along with his wife Sony, armed with all the warmth from a receptive Lasallian community during their brief visit: that you play all 40 minutes of each game and treat each opponent as if you were defending the crown on every single possession.
For any other team this may seem like asking too much. But not for the Green Archers and their campaign for back-to-back titles. Where one needs to be extra sharp in making timely passes and in catching the ball to make use of that precious split second before a defender recovers. Or for every teammate who falls a step behind, another would be quick to step in for the help. Or all the attempts of opponents at horseplay to get in one’s head just has to be shrugged off. As if the title was on the line on nearly every single play, from opening tip to final buzzer.
Because maybe with a constant chip on their shoulders—fortified by pride and discipline–can the Green Archers have those heads once again primed and ready for the crown. And after proving every other single pretender and would-be contender unworthy of it.