Greenstincts: Heart of a Champion

For all of the adjustments on offense and defense: better player and ball movement, snappy execution of set plays, limiting one of the opponent’s top player and taking better care of the ball, it was the intangibles that allowed the DLSU Green Archers to finally get back at their season tormentors, the FEU Tamaraws.

Finally there was a sense of urgency, purpose and desperation that was lacking in three previous losses. Vision and unselfishness allowed the ball to move around and find the open man as 28 made field goals came from 19 assists. Relentless desire to extend their season, especially the UAAP careers of the team’s senior players resulted in a complete mismatch in the battle of rebounds, 54-41.

Man-made or by acts of nature, there were no more excuses when the UAAP game no. 60 could have easily been the Green Archers’ last game in Season 77. Honestly, there were some doubts to whether La Salle could negate the Tams’ twice-to-beat-advantage, but with courageous hearts and championship pride, the Green and White squad came out of the gates swinging. Their subliminal message through 40 minutes of inspired play was clear: don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.

The spotlight was on Jeron Teng as he came back from a sub-par performance last week with 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists. But at the post game interview, the Season 76 MVP added an unaccounted assist as he dedicated the team’s effort to the team’s graduating players: Norbert Torres, Almond Vosotros and Yutien Andrada.

That the Bear and Almond combined for 35 points, 15 rebounds and six assists only showed this is not yet the time to close the UAAP chapter of their basketball careers. Rookie Julian Sargent made three 3-point shots in a two-minute span to jumpstart the Green and White offense. From then on, La Salle only got stronger as the lead went up to as much as 25 points, enabling coach Juno Sauler and his boys to get one more opportunity to go to the Finals.

Could not have scripted it better
The US fall television schedule had already started with series and season premiers this past week. While casual viewers curiously tune-in and hardcore fans welcome their beloved shows and characters back, on the local scene, nothing compares to the action, drama and a little dose of reality competition that the UAAP brings especially now that both Final Four series are tied at one game a piece.

Where else can you find a plot to a Final Four series like the one the DLSU Green Archers and FEU Tamaraws have so far? A week ago, Typhoon Mario, a Dengue-carrying mosquito and an underwear fashion show was all the talk of the media, Lasallian and UAAP communities. Five days of seemingly living under a rock with a gag order to boot, and the Taft-based squad defeats their Morayta counterparts for the first time in four tries this season and extend the series to a rubber match.

That the win was in blowout fashion, 21 points, somehow makes up for the wasted chances the Archers allowed to get away in their two elimination round losses (77-82, 70-74) and last week during the playoff for the number two seed and twice-to-beat advantage, 60-65.

So dominant were the Green Archers that frustration set in to whole FEU bench. Pro wrestling style unsportsman-like fouls: a blow to Prince Rivero’s head by Francis Tamsi and a blatant low blow by Ron Dennison to a driving Jeron Teng have no place in collegiate basketball. Unable to stop La Salle’s offense, FEU head coach Nash Racela was left to plea with the referees for unmerited calls and ghost violations.

After getting a technical foul called for excessive complaining during the third period, Racela was in no mood end the game even if his team was down by 23 points with less than three minutes to go in the final period. He instructed his players to foul at will, first on Arnold Van Opstal then the La Salle guards to try to trim the Archers’ big lead. It was a case of too little, too late for FEU as DLSU was able to sink 8 from 16 free throws attempts.

Be careful what you wish for
FEU star guard Mike Tolomia, after their win last Sunday, mentioned his preference to face La Salle in the Final Four this year because the Green Archers have booted out his team out of the title contention for the past two seasons. Averaging more than 21 points in three games against DLSU this season, the coaching staff and La Salle defenders had other plans for the King Tamaraw for this crucial match, holding Tolomia to seven points, making only two field goals from 14 attempts for the entire game.

Tolomia’s 19-point, eight-rebound production in the playoff game was nowhere to be found this time with only forward Mark Belo scoring in double-digits with 32 points and a single rebound. Intentional or not, the ploy of letting Belo shoot the lights out limited the contribution of the other Tamaraws, especially the trio of Carl Cruz, Roger Pogoy and Achi Inigo who combined for 13 points.

Statistics of the game
46 free throw attempts. Even in a blowout win, the Green Archers still managed to put up a Season 77 league-high number of attempts from the charity stripe. The hack-an-Archer employed by the Tams in the closing moments surely helped balloon the number of attempts. Good thing La Salle was able to capitalize, making 75% (18/24) in the first three quarters and managing to convert a respectable 12/22 in the last canto.

From DLSU’s 93 total points, 30 came the free throws, 36 from mid to outside shots with only 28 scored from the paint. The adjustment in offense was clear. The playoff lost can be attributed to a stubborn approach to pound the paint, then kick the ball out off the double team. In this win, the Archers utilized the high and side pick-and-rolls more to initiate their offense and together with better ball movement made La Salle less predictable when they had the ball.

Once Norbert, AVO or Jason got the ball in the post, they were more patient to find the cutting players or open shooters. Jeron may have been the game’s top scorer but my man of the match was The Bear. Coming off the bench, it was clear that Norbert did not want this game to be his last in a Green Archer uniform and finished with a highly efficient stat line of 18 points from 6/9 shooting, seven rebounds and two assists in only 18 minutes.

The bench also came alive, outscoring the FEU reserves, 37-22, a far cry from last game’s 11 total points. Despite catching up on his conditioning and actual game speed, Thomas Torres, in limited minutes provided stability in the point guard position. Not easily rattled when trapped in either a full-court or half-court traps, Thomas’ excellent grasp of the offense and spunk on defense were the secret ingredients sorely missed during the five La Salle losses this season.

As it was like the playoff loss last week, it will be in the best interest of the Green Archers to again set their 100% focus on Wednesday’s rubber match. Entertain no thoughts on going to the Finals against either Ateneo or NU, nor a chance for back-to-back titles. Rest, practice and prepare for one of the most important games of the season, playing and living with the mantra uttered by the great Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovic almost 20 years ago: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”