While the Green Archers’ current love affair with the championship has been anything but smooth so far this season–in fact taking a melodramatic turn with much off court noise both preceding and leading up to last Sunday’s loss against the FEU Tamaraws–there can be no counting out Coach Juno Sauler and his boys just yet. Even against a team that has gotten the upper hand in all three encounters so far.
Separation anxiety levels are at alarming levels coming into Saturday’s game with the season on the line for the Green Archers. And rightfully so. With the La Salle defenders still unable to figure out FEU’s perimeter game, the crafty Mike Tolomia, and those hard, wide big-league screens set high leading to either open shooters or open lanes after leaving the switches in disarray—which are truly the only bodies that should be garnering justified attention–the collective frustration of the Lasallian faithful is now more palpable than when free throw shooting woes was the trending target of ire.
And I get it more than anyone, because this frustration has only been appeased a few times this season, temporarily at most, all stemming from the great expectations for a La Salle team that came out of nowhere to win the crown in season 76, as well as generating so much on and off court noise in the offseason.
One’s romance with the defending champions got off to a rough start after losing the first two games of the season, and continued to remain on shaky terms with razor-thin wins and heartbreaking losses. We were supposed to have it easy this year right? We were all supposed to sit back, drink in hand, and marvel at the spectacle that is La Salle basketball executed game in and game out.
As always, real events rarely stick to the lines and cues we’ve orchestrated in our heads. Not the Almond Vosotros shooting slump that birthed so much vitriol, Jason Perkins blowing hot and cold, the inconsistent play of our rookies that we expected to take the league by storm, the erratic play of last year’s most improved player, rotations and substitution patterns that look more ideal from where we’re standing, or Jeron Teng not swooping in to save the day every time we need him to.
But along with others whose affections for this La Salle team traces its roots back to last year’s season opener, with our would-be heroes still looking directionless and struggling for form on every single possession before a half empty arena, I know for certain that adversity only brings out the best in this team and the more than able coaches leading the way. Being in a hole is nothing new to this team, along with mustering what it takes to climb out of one.
There are no excuses to be made for a championship team representing a proud institution, backed by a community that never settles for anything less than excellence. No consolation prizes or pats on the back either. Because that’s exactly part of what Coach Sauler has been preaching from day one. It isn’t supposed to be easy. The climb towards anything great never is. And falling short necessarily happens from time to time when one’s reach exceeds one’s grasp.
Because on Saturday, anything short of excellence and perfection just won’t cut it. And this La Salle team will resume the quest for back-to-back titles in the same manner it reached the summit the first time: not through antics or wizardry, but with simple hardnosed basketball, precise execution and focus on both ends, unshakeable trust in each other and their shots, and a whole lot of collective hard work.
Coach Nash Racela and the Tamaraws mean business. That goes without saying, with FEU displaying optimum team basketball as early as the postseason tournament. And with Carl Cruz emphatically pulling away and restraining teammates who were on the verge of losing their heads, one can clearly see they want this badly too, being booted by La Salle the past two seasons.
I’ve never believed in one team wanting it more than the other. Everyone wants what this La Salle team has. And it’s so easy to lose sense of the real plot, the essential one that is more substantial and easily drowned out by external noise; one etched in stone by Coach Sauler and his system: never looking back or too far ahead, because the only thing you can control is the game at hand. The next play, the most immediate goal, the next mountain to climb directly ahead of you. Not the four others after Saturday’s game that will bring that second consecutive title falling into our loving arms.
There’s been a lot of talk about commitment, focus and dedication after last Sunday’s loss. Taking Coach Sauler’s lead, the rest of the team isn’t expending any energy addressing matters outside the FEU enigma that awaits on Saturday which is driven by textbook offense, extra effort on the offensive glass and disciplined communication on defense that fortifies the weak side. Playing one’s game to the hilt, and winning, always does the best talking.
In the same way Jeron Teng and Arnold Van Opstal aren’t answerable to me for their actions, their personal lives off the court don’t concern me too much, if at all. While Teng shot poorly from the field last Sunday, I can only look back at the 1:31 mark of the fourth quarter—diving and sliding head first, right arm pinned between floor and chest, from the three-point line up to the scorer’s table after a loose ball from an errant pass by Van Opstal—to remember that he will do anything and everything humanly possible, as he has all season, to help this La Salle team to victory.
And if we allow ourselves to get caught up in what Arnold Van Opstal does the night before games, then I’d like to know what he did the night before the first round Ateneo game or the second round match against UE, during which he played more poorly. But I don’t, because while he did miss a lot of point blank shots and seemed lost on defense (along with the rest of the team), it was one of his more competent games—albeit not his best–in a season of inconsistency so far, even giving La Salle its last lead of the game with 3:20 left off an assertive post move.
However, close enough will never cut it for this La Salle team and its rabid, zealous community. Those gutsy rallies that were repeatedly staved off by FEU, the last one with a 7-0 run to close out the game in the midst of crucial turnovers and point blank shots by the Green Archers that went too long or fell short, necessarily get buried in the post mortems and hardly seem worth commending by most.
That’s why we are left to necessarily shrug at the fact that this La Salle team has been starting to play together and hit its stride, as when Kib Montalbo, Julian Sargent and Vosotros started making their outside shots, unclogging the paint even just a bit to allow Jason Perkins to regain his groove. All because with a third-straight loss to FEU, there is no more room for error and the bottom line is truly all that matters at this point; an often thin line that separates heroic efforts from triumphant ones.
I won’t pretend to know what this La Salle team has in store for Saturday. All I can do is brush up on my mediocre Marvin Gaye impression and prepare to bring the noise with the rest of the Lasallian faithful, all in anticipation of the Green Archers bringing the best version of themselves on the court for 40 solid minutes.
Nothing new. Just La Salle basketball at its finest. Tightly-woven by faith and heart and a level of play to make us all proud.
The writing on the wall has been clear from day one. Carved high and bright, in green and white: We all reach the top together because we all climb together, just like last year, and on any given year. One mountain at a time.