Left with an 11-month long bitter taste from a Mac Belo buzzer beater that ended La Salle’s quest for back-to-back titles last year, drawing the defending champions National University on opening weekend of Season 78 could not have come sooner for the six returning Green Archers and coach Juno Sauler’s coaching staff.
La Salle’s use of a short rotation, the close 67-63 winning margin, a last-ditch run by the Bulldogs and DLSU’s clutch response made both team’s season opening matches look and feel like typical September match from previous years where either playoff positioning or knockout matches are usually settled.
Why coach Sauler did not push for time while NU was on a 13-4 run is a puzzle and may serve well as an early lesson on lead management for the rest of the season.
The Green Archer’s defense, especially in the first quarter made all the difference in the final tally. After giving up a three point basket to the Bulldogs’ Gelo Alolino at the 8:13 mark for the opening canto, La Salle held NU’s production to a single point and managed to end the quarter with a commanding 16-6 lead.
With the lead going to as high as 15 at the midway mark of the third, 45-30 and the Archers still holding to a 56-46 lead at the 5:49 mark of the final quarter, it did seem for a while that win number one was already a sure thing. However, NU’s backcourt pressure on Thomas Torres and rookie Andrei Caracut forced costly turnovers and placed the Bulldogs well within striking distance, 59-60 after Alolino split his charities with 1:19 to go.
Why coach Sauler did not push for time while NU was on a 13-4 run is a puzzle and may serve well as an early lesson on lead management for the rest of the season. Two free throws by a slimmed-down Jason Perkins put the brakes on National U’s momentum before Jeron Teng put the finishing touches with an unorthodox banking shot-cum-prayer with 23.6 seconds remaining.
Helping La Salle’s cause was the constant foul trouble experience by NU’s import Alfred Aroga, thereby negating the Bulldogs’ size advantage. Despite losing the rebounding battle, 42-47 (10 versus 19 on offensive rebounds), the Green Archers shot well from both the field (39%) and free throw stripe (17/22, 77.3%) compared to their Sampaloc-based counterparts (28.5%, 73.9%).
Nine La Salle Greenhorns
Sans Caracut, the much reported and hyped La Salle rookie class saw limited time on the floor with only Jollo Go and Andrew Langston given a combined 10 minutes of floor time. Knowing the quality of opposition in the defending champions, coach Sauler tightened his rotation; putting his trust and faith to his six most senior players plus the sweet-shooting Caracut.
The former San Beda Red Cub missed his first three attempts during the opening period before finding his stroke in the middle two quarters to finish with 13 points on 3/7 shooting from beyond the arc with two rebounds and three assists.
Not to underestimate the Green Archers’ next opponent, the UP fighting Maroons, but expect more playing opportunities for the team’s other available rookies: Renzo Navarro, Larry Muyang, Daryl Pascual, John Gob and Leondro Joson on Wednesday.
Although four players finished in double figures, lead by Jeron’s 18 points, the most worrying number on the stat sheet was the lowly eight assists registered by DLSU. Rust, nerves and jitters definitely played a factor in the glaring assist to turnover ratio of 8:17, with seven of the total errors committed by the team’s point guards, Torres and Caracut.
Despite all the talk “small ball”, most of the sets run by the Archers still incorporated isolation plays in the post; trying to overpower and force their way into the paint. Unlike in previous years where the likes of Norbert Torres and AVO have the edge in height and can muscle their way into the shaded lane, this year’s team can’t afford to play solely on isolation and one-on-one sets.
There were also a couple of instances, especially in the second half, where the ball should have been passed to another player instead of forcing a bad shoot. “Small ball” only works when all five players are cutting, setting screens and passing the ball around; expect the team to have better movement and flow in the coming games and for those assist numbers to rise.
Animo La Salle!