The only thing to match the gruesomeness of the final four minutes of yesterday’s game, wherein the UE Red Warriors’ counter-comeback from a 10-point deficit placed the Green Archers in a must-win situation on Saturday to secure at least a playoff berth for the second spot in the Final Four, are the various message boards that bore the brunt of the Lasallian faithful’s ire.
Coated in frustration and impatience, disappointment over yesterday’s 68-66 loss is easily understood. And should be expected. We like setting our bars high instead of simply squeaking by. And because at this point in the tournament, this late in the season, there can be no simple shrugging off losses anymore. And as with any near-crisis undergone, the wounds have to be fully tended to before any healing can begin.
For both casual and rabid fans alike, the 30 turnovers committed by the Green Archers would be enough to fatten any dark cloud on what would have been a potentially uplifting day. Just like the first round encounter, nearly every kind of error was induced, from backing violations to wayward inbounds passes. I’ll save the elaboration on irony for more scholarly minds, but truly, Game Killer thy name is The Pumaren Full Court Press.
Let’s not stop there. Because in those final four minutes, everything except the kitchen sink went awry for this La Salle team. Free throw shooting, poor decision making, highly questionable lead management, offensive disarray in the clutch, uncharacteristic post weakness, the absence of legitimate playmaking skills. Throw in the usual Almond Vosotros hate, now magnified more than ever, sprinkled with doubts pertaining to optimum bench utilization, one would think we weren’t taking about a team still very much in the hunt for a second seed in the final four.
And all of that is just on the surface, from those casting a quick glance at the game. Because I’ve also been privy to ever growing frustration over the shaky play of Arnold Van Opstal that continues to try the patience of many. As well as the tendency of Jason Perkins to be left underutilized, more by his vulnerability to be affected by the extra rough play against him—left to trade barbs with defenders left and right–than the absence of a more heady point guard who will set offensive patterns and create easier shots for him. Finally, the icing on the misery cake would be the ruing over Thomas Torres’ absence which especially after every loss has grown a thousandfold.
But now that we’ve aired all our dirty laundry, with a clearer head I’d dare posit a few things that keep me upbeat. None more so than the inspired basketball to open the second half, enabling the Green Archers to turn a 15-point deficit into a 10-point lead late in the game.
Led by the indomitable Jeron Teng slowly chipping away and again putting the team on his Asgardian shoulders by just keeping his head down, playing hard and getting to the line, all leading to the eventual opening of the floodgates which placed a new, surprising version of La Salle small ball on full display.
Entrusting extended minutes to an unconventional five on the floor–Teng, Vosotros, Prince Rivero, Julian Sargent and Kib Montalbo, the entire Lasallian gallery was up on its feet and roaring, witnessing an excellent display of gutsy team basketball that was just a couple of fake water bucket gags and trouser-pulling antics short of Harlem Globetrotters-caliber basketball.
Quick steals by off lazy dribbles by the UE perimeter shooters, who were reduced to airballs and wide shots by the quick switching defense of Montalbo and Vosotros. Pinpoint passing to find open snipers, with Montalbo and Sargeant obliging with decisive catches and unflinching shots. Nearly all five Archers running the floor, with Sargent capping it all off with a highlight layup that left Chares Mammie’s jaw agape. Teng joining the party from downtown and finding the open man off the doubles, and Rivero’s constant movement coupled with sharp passing for easy baskets in the paint, all while relentlessly crashing the boards. And welcome back Voso-tres who broke his slump with a three off the board, and later his third triple of the afternoon cutting the lead to 1 with a little over a second remaining.
Team play so inspiring that it left the perpetually unsatisfied Coach Juno Sauler acknowledging the tremendous effort and heart of his boys, sending a clear message to the rest of the pack that stealing a win from La Salle will never be an easy task. While that incredible stretch was indeed a pleasure to watch, it was unfortunately unsustained and fell short, of course.
Because if everyone is left unsatisfied with ugly wins—such as those against Adamson and UST in the second round—then yesterday’s heart shattering loss naturally reduces all of the above to footnotes, understandably overshadowed by the errors and lapses all those would-be heroes committed in the face of the UE uprising.
With dismayed external fingers pointed in all directions, even a few aghast and already looking ahead to a dismal scenario beyond this season, the only thing that matters to this team is how they stick together while looking to the next step in pursuit of the larger goal, in the same manner through victories or potentially morale-crushing defeats. This team, from top dog to last man, will win and lose together. And by taking responsibility for a game situation scenario that he could have probably averted, Coach Sauler has put everything squarely on his own shoulders.
Knowing that even a single soul on this team won’t be thrown under the bus not only will do wonders for the gut core of this unit–with all the improvements, tweaks and overhauls still called for in the home stretch of eliminations play leading to playoff games against still to be determined opponents–but it is also what keeps many supporters untainted by excessive angst, still fueled by great expectations for a team gunning for glory and a level of excellence unthinkable for others.
This eye-on-the-prize paradigm applicable to all things is probably best embodied by the immeasurable spiritual focus of Assistant Coach Jun Limpot, who will gladly impart his pieces of wisdom to any eager ear in between driving the bigs on this team to the ground in instilling the basics of post dominance. This current moment is all that matters in moving on to the next goal, while learning from whatever fell short in trying to achieve the previous one. A mantra slightly shakeable only in those rare matters of the romantic heart, as tested firsthand through concise pragmatic grilling by Coach Sauler over a hearty meal with the rest of the coaching staff 24 hours before last season’s final game.
Because just like the community it represents, this team will stick together and remain strong. Learning from previous flaws; passions unbridled, focus ever-sharper, and with heads unbowed.
Buckle up, Lasallian faithful. It’s going to be one heck of a ride to the end of this season. Whether or not we see the emergence of the well-oiled machine we’ve all been waiting for since day one, by proving this team will go down swinging if it has to as it did during that second-half comeback, the one other guarantee is Lasallian basketball played at its finest will always be a sight to behold.
And as for this little thing called fear, Charles Mammie got it wrong. Colorful threats all just fade the same way as insipid gossip, invectives and skepticism. Because respect, not fear, is what matters most to this La Salle team. Who will always let their actions on the court do all the talking.