The View From the Armchair – Summing up the Green Archers’ PCCL campaign

Not again!

The Green Archers came up short again, and failed to defend their title in another major tournament this year, The defending champions fell in a sweep in the best-of-three PCCL finals to NCAA champion San Beda last week. San Beda took the first game, 81-88 before prevailing in the second, 66-73, as the Archers’ game fell apart in the 4th quarter of both games which were held at the Ynares Gym. It was no consolation that the Archers had dealt San Beda their only loss in the tournament, beating them 61-56 in the crossover Elite 8 playoffs en route to a clean slate going into the finals.

The loss marked the second of their three titles that the Archers had failed to defend, after losing the UAAP championship a few months ago. The only remaining championship crown of the La Salle men’s basketball team is the pre-season Fil-Oil tournament which is usually held in the second quarter of each year.

A New Look Archer Team

The Archers started the PCCL title defense with a slightly different lineup, as mainstays Almond Vosotros, Jason Perkins, Norbert Torres, Julian Sargent, and AVO were not on the bench for various reasons. In their place were lanky forward Daryl Pascual, combo guard Joshua Torralba, beefy frontliner Larry Muyang, and import Ben Mbala. The early introduction of the new players allowed us to get a preview of the possible Archer squad for next year.

The Eliminations

Because we placed third in the just-concluded UAAP tournament, the Archers were only seeded into the final 16. This meant that they had to go through the Luzon-Metro Manila eliminations, needing to win two games to advance to the playoffs, which they did. The defending champs won their Luzon-Metro Manila eliminations game quite handily, beating JRU 67-62 and CEU 79-56 to advance to the Elite 8 crossover games. The Archers more than held their own against the Heavy Bombers and Pink Scorpions in a pair of bruising games, winning both without too much trouble.

The Round of 8 Playoffs

In a departure from previous editions, the PCCL did away with the knockout process, and divided the playoff teams into two groups of 4, with each team playing all the teams in the other group. We were bracketed in Group A together with University of San Carlos, NCAA runner-up Arellano University, and UAAP champ NU, while in Group B were San Beda, UAAP runner-up FEU, and Visayan teams UV and SWU.

Our first two games were held in Cebu, and despite the home-court handicap, we took both games over SWU 59-54 and UV 74-64 on back-to-back days. The Cebuano teams play a different brand of basketball, fast and highly physical, lots of run-and-gun ball interspersed with in-the-paint banging. We managed to weather the fast-and-furious tactics quite well, running with the Visayan teams and playing our half-court game to control both encounters.

Back in Manila, the Archers took the measure of San Beda 61-56 with a suffocating defense while getting both SBC imports into foul trouble. We then achieved a measure of revenge over FEU by eliminating them 74-61. However, any elation over this victory was tempered by the fact that the Tams played without some key players like Mac Belo due to a schedule conflict with the D-League, a fact that sportscaster Boom Gonzales stressed throughout the telecast while only mentioning that we were missing some of our mainstay players only once or twice.

That victory against San Beda was noteworthy, because we dominated the middle quarters with a suffocating defense, holding the Red Lions to just 17 and 5 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarters respectively. The shell-shocked Bedans managed a run in the final quarter, ourscoring us 10-19, but it was a case of too little, too late. The SBC shooters couldn’t hit the mark, missing all 14 of their shots beyond the arc, and hitting only 21/76 (27.6%) overall. We also outworked them on the boards, 57-47 as Adeogun was shackled with 4 fouls. We survived our 21 turnovers by forcing San Beda into 17, and our players assisted each other on 13 out of 25 field goals, a pretty good show of teamwork. Like SBC, we were atrocious from long range, making only 1/14. Despite the win, this was an ominous sign of things to come for us.

The Finals

Game 1 of the finals did not go according to the typical Green Archer script.

San Beda got the early jump on the Archers, winning the first two quarters to lead at the half, 37-43. We took the third quarter, 22-18 to edge closer at 59-61 heading into the final 10 minutes. The final quarter was a hard-fought, close one, but the Red Lions proved steadier in the clutch, outscoring us 22-27; this was their highest scoring quarter after tallying 23, 20 and 18 in the previous 3 quarters. Our scoring output was consistent, 18, 19, 22 and 22, but it was our defense that failed us in this game.

The SBC shooters finally found their range in this game, making 6/17 for a good 35%. Guards Amer and Sara combined for 5 treys in the second half which opened up the middle for their slashers and bigs to score, led by Adeogun who made 20 points on 7/10 shooting within 5 feet of the basket.

Ben Mbala proved why he was highly recruited by personally leading the Archer charge with a double double of 26 points and 14 rebounds. Kib Montalbo provided able scoring support with 13 points on 4/8 shooting, while Price Rivero had 12 points and 7 boards in his usual all-around game. Abu Tratter had 10 points and 6 rebounds, while Jeron had a “quiet” 9 points and only 2 rebounds as SBC paid him the ultimate compliment by closely marking him throughout the game.

In contrast to our highly defensive Elite 8 game, this time both teams concentrated on scoring, resulting in a faster and more freewheeling game. The total number of attempts of both teams was roughly the same as in the semifinals, but the accuracy was better: SBC had a 30/67 (45%) fg clip with 6/17 on treys, while we had 32/70 (46%) from the field but only 2/13 beyond the arc. The Red Lions were more successful in fishing for fouls, getting to the line to shoot 30 fts and making 22, while we had only 23 fts of which we made 15; the 65% free throw shooting is lower than our performance in the UAAP. We reduced our turnovers to 18 while SBC also had less at 16.

It looked like San Beda had done their homework in game 1, and it was time for us to do the same.

And so Juno started out with an unusual lineup in game 2. Where he had started Abu before replacing him with Ben, now he started both for the tipoff. It seemed to work, as we kept pace with the Red Lions for 3 quarters, and in fact, we took the middle quarters 18-15 and 17-16 after losing the first 15-16. Along the way, we got SBC import Adeogun into foul trouble with 3 in the first half, forcing SBC to sit him for the entire 3rd quarter to preserve him for the homestretch. Jeron was aggressive from the start, hitting on a couple of treys, driving into the lane to fish for fouls or popping his jumpers. It was looking good. However, Ben struggled to score in the highly physical encounter which saw the refs allow heavy contact without calling fouls.

Our team’s final push never came, as the Red Lions pulled out all the stops to handily take the last 10 minutes 16-26; they poured it on, and we faded. Ben was bumped and shoved under the basket, and the rough play managed to get his goat. After going 11 for 14 in game 1, Ben was harassed into a 5/12 performance from the field, and he was so unsettled that he missed all his 3 fts. Jeron hit a 3 in the 4th, but had little support from our guards who managed only 12 points on a combined 6/19 performance from the field; many of the misses came in the final quarter as they went for quick long jumpers early in the shot clock to try to bring the deficit down. With the loss, the Archers yielded the second of their 3 collegiate titles. Only one remains – the Fil-Oil which is really just considered as a tune-up tournament by most participants as they prepare for the upcoming season.

Head Scratchers

The unusual rotation in this game also was reflected in players fielded in – only 7: Ben, Abu, Jeron, Kib, Prince, Thomas and Larry Muyang. The first 6 saw heavy action, while Larry played for 13 minutes as the coaches tried to control the paint. Four of our starters played very heavy minutes (Jeron-36.5, Ben-35, Kib-34, Thomas-33), with Prince (26) and Abu (22.5) also seeing more minutes than usual, and Larry playing 13 minutes. While our players are fit, the extended minutes could have told on their game at the end, with fatigue possibly affecting their shooting and causing them to be half a step late in chasing their men. The 4th quarter is when San Beda poured it on, and our boys appeared not to have the legs to keep up with them.

With this pool of talented players in our lineup, it is highly unusual for any coach to use only 7 players. The quality of shooters left on the bench when we needed to hit our outside shots to catch up was also questionable, considering that only Kib and Jeron had made any treys. It’s possible that Matt Salem and Robert Bolick might not have made their shots either, but after Kib and Thomas had been on court for over 30 minutes by the 4th quarter, they would not have their usual lift from their legs to help in their jumpers.

Other factors may have come from the players also. Jeron may have tried too hard to get his game going and carry the team on his broad shoulders. True, he topscored in the game with 25 points on 21 shots, hitting only 33%. When he gets the ball early, ball movement slows down as he looks for ways to penetrate and shoot or pass off, and the shot is taken only in the last couple of seconds, with no time to try anything else. We also tried too hard to establish Ben in the paint, resulting in several turnovers because our moves were predictable. Our guards, particularly Thomas, will also have to look more to setting up plays over shooting early in the shot clock or driving into heavy traffic; both were factors in botched plays which the Red Lions took advantage of. losing key members and integrating new players is hard, and it showed in the finals against SBC, whose core had played together for the last few years.

Of course, this is all in hindsight, which is always 20/20, but short rotations have been a staple of our coaches for the past couple of years. It’s probably one of the reasons why our UAAP lineups have not been filled to the maximum of 16 for the past two years. This past UAAP season, we could have used an extra guard and shooter with the injuries to Thomas and Kib. Veterans Luigi dela Paz and  Oda Tampus might have filled the gaps at the guard position, and also helped address our inability to consistently hit the outside shots. We’ll never know, since that option was never considered and we lined up only 14 players for UAAP77.

Looking Forward

Our lineup will undergo some changes, probably major with the departure of our best shooter, Almond, our most reliable center, Norbert, and Yutien, who had been a reliable big man when he was healthy. AVO remains a question mark, with doubts regarding his focus, willingness, ability, and commitment to improve himself.

Their prospective replacements seem to be able to fill the gaps they will leave.

Ben Mbala has been as good as advertised, highly skilled, aggressive, agile, strong, relentless, able to dominate, and with the willingness to learn and improve. However, he needs to hone his in-game judgment and learn to keep his cool, so that he does not become frustrated at the opponents’ physical tactics.

Joshua Torralba is a good combo guard, already good-to-go, who has the good court vision and ball handling skills needed by our guards. He can drive, shoot from outside, and has the good court sense to make the right decisions. With his height, he addresses the problem Almond had going against taller counterparts at the guard position. If our coaches decide to pair him with Julian on the floor, we can field a very tall team for stretches.

After a year in Team B, Daryl Pascual appears to have put on some weight that will allow him to be more effective inside. He has a nose for the ball, and is able to go for rebounds on both ends. Because he can consistently hit the trey, he will pull out his guard to open up the middle for our bigs.

Larry Muyang has the same height and build as Norbert Torres, and is also able to crash the boards and strong enough to push opposing centers out of the paint. Despite his heft, he has shown the ability to run the break and finish, and he’s also not afraid to dive for the ball. Muyang needs more exposure, but shows great promise with his footwork and ability to not only play with his back to the basket but also pop jumpers within 15 feet from the rim.

Assuming that Julian Sargent and Jason Perkins return, and if the four newcomers are able to stick with the team, we might have a good 16-man lineup assuming this team is retained. However, there are probably some recruits being eyed by the team management, so it’s too early to speculate on the eventual composition of the team next year..

The UAAP is still at least 8 months away. That’s enough time for the coaches to figure out what didn’t work in our failed title defences, and also how to maximize the full potential of a 16-man lineup composed of talented individuals and turn them into a championship team again. Other teams are already looking to improve, and our coaches will need to do better than their counterparts.

There’s a lot of time, and our team has the stuff to make it back to the top.