The parameters have already shifted for the defending champion DLSU Green Archers. Shortened rotations, made fields goals being as important as costly turnovers, breaks of the game favoring one team or the other and momentum swings signal that the UAAP basketball playoffs are coming.
Yet in the midst of all the changes and chaos, one thing remains constant: faith. Faith of coach Juno Sauler in his players; trust of the Lasallian faithful that despite trailing for most of the game, the Archers will fight until the end; belief that although missing 16 free throws, the ones that matter most would still find their way through the basket.
“Even if he misses a lot, he’s Almond Vosotros. Teams have to defend him.” – coach Juno Sauler
Never did any La Salle and UST pairing resulted in a boring game. From the bridesmaid years of the 90’s to last year’s full three game championship series, both teams always bring out the best in each other.
Playing with less than the maximum available players, UST (Kevin Ferrer with a fractured hand and Louie Vigil suspended after two unsportsman-like fouls) and DLSU (Thomas Torres still recovering from a fractured ankle), the protagonist still treated the less than sold out MOA Arena crowd to some of the finest back-and-fourth action in UAAP Season 77.
In spite of inspired play from both squads, neither team lead by double digits in any point in the game. The Green Archers even trailed at the end of all three quarters, 16-17, 30-34 and 46-47 and were still trailing by 4, six minutes into the final period.
These are not the same La Salle squad that surprised the league last year with a 7-0 second round sweep en route to the title. From being Season 76 dark horses, the team is now a verteran-savvy squad that can reach into their championship experience when the going gets tough.
Facing a four point deficit and with the La Salle shooters going two for 14, the only way to come out of this game with a W was to attack the paint. With the intent to either make close range baskets or to get the whistle and go to the line, Arnold Van Opstal made two huge makes from up close while Jeron Teng took advantage of UST being in penalty early going seven of 10 from the charity stripe.
Limiting the Growling Tigers to two Karim Abdul free throws in that 13-2 closing rally not only shows how stingy the De La Salle defense can be but also the mental edge that DLSU have over their España counterparts. As the Green Archers took advantage of their opponents foul-prone tendencies in the fourth by going 13 of 21, the Tigers reverted to isolation plays that only resulted in UST committing eight of their total 17 errors.
Faith in the players
“Even if he misses a lot, he’s Almond Vosotros. Teams have to defend him.” Coach Juno know his personnel better than any of us. The perimeter shooting threat of Almond gets only recognized by ordinary folks when the ball find its way inside the hoop. But by Vosotros being Vosotros, teams have to respect his abilities, never allowing his defender to help or sag in the post, thereby allowing our frontline space to operate.
The team scored a measly one fast break point and two off turnovers. The Green Archers could have easily run in transition for easy baskets, but with coach Juno utilizing a short rotation may not have enough energy down the stretch. In a battle of attrition, sacrificing pace for adequate energy in the closing moments, La Salle was clearly the physically and mentally fresher team in the end.
Trust of the Lasallian faithful
The La Salle-UST match was actually a family affair as I watched the game with two of my siblings (my sister is a DLSU alumus while my brother graduated from UST), our significant others and a number of my brother’s UST friends. I did observe the some differences between being a supporter of the Green and White against supporters of the Growling Tigers.
First, we started to cheer the minute our beloved Green Archers started doing their warm-up drills until the final buzzer sounded. While the DLSU chants of “Go, La Salle” and “Defense” are not as catchy as the rhythmic “Go USTe” I would like to believe that they still work. Whether the team was up or down by a considerable margin or was slowly gaining momentum, the hoarser and uglier our voices become, the better.
Stark contrast to our UST counterparts where great plays must happen first before the UST crowd gives a positive response. Things doesn’t work that way, with the Tigers already in a do-or-die situation, the USTe gallery should probably double their support to their squad.
The last and probably worse of the differences was with regards to the singing of the alma mater hymn. True, winning makes us all the more proud to twice belt out the La Salle school hymn; but never in any loss, weather in the elimination round or the champion series did I heard the Lasallian gallery just go through the motions before muttering the word hail three times in the end. Like a tattoo permanently stuck to our minds, each product of La Salle, from the grade school through college sings the school hymn beaming with pride.
Some in the Santo Tomas crowd barely held their hands during the singing our their hymn and knowing all the words was a task left to the most loyal of fans. Despite UST having 18 UAAP championships and more than 400 years of existence for their university, I would not trade it for our eight basketball titles and more than a hundred years of excellence.
The final week of the UAAP second round once again becomes one hell of a week for the defending champions. After the 67-60 Saturday win against UST, the Green Archers next face University of the East on Wednesday and National U on Saturday. Two teams itching to get back at La Salle after both teams lost by two points in the first round and are still in the hunt for the last slot in the Final Four.
Both the Red Warriors and Bulldogs promise to be better versions of themselves compared to the their first round showing. While it would take a small dose of miracle to survive hell week and come out with an 11-3 record, all the team asks of the Lasallian community is never lose faith, trust and continue to believe.