Where do the Archers stand after the First Round?

A 5-2 record at the end of the first round. Solo 3rd place in the standings. As George Gonzales, one of the La Salle diehards said, “not bad for a 2-month old team”.

Not bad at all. Really.

Even though one of our losses was a blowout to Ateneo, while the other was a could’ve/should’ve won nail-biter against UP.

For a team that didn’t practice together, and in fact, hadn’t been on the court together yet until just a couple of months before the UAAP tournament start, the record at the end of the first round was a very pleasant surprise. 5-2.

Can the Archers Recover After the Loss to Ateneo?

After losing to Ateneo in the 4th game, the Archers bounced back with a solid 75-66 victory over UST. The final score didn’t quite reflect the game-long domination of the Green Archers, who came into the game with something to prove after getting routed in the previous game.

They dominated the first 3 quarters, outscoring the Tigers 23-16, 19-11, 19-17, before easing up at the end and allowing UST to gain some measure of respectability in the final quarter, 14-22. One of the keys to the win was the Archers’ domination of the boards, 46-33, with the frontline of Michael Phillips, Baltazar, and Nwonkwo pulling down a total of 27 boards, which helped the team score 19 second chance points. The active defense of the greenies also resulted in 11 steals leading to 13 points off turnovers.

Emmanuel Galman made his debut in this game, and announced his presence with 13 points in only 16 minutes coming from a 3/6 shooting clip on triples and 2/4 on 2-pointers. Michael Phillips again ruled the boards on both ends, hauling down 8 offensive and 5 defensive rebounds. Mark Nonoy had a off day, perhaps due to the added pressure of playing against his former team. Deschon Winston also played below par, tallying just 2 points. Balti and Lojera shone when it counted, topscoring with 20 and 15 respectively.

Against Fancied Contender UP Maroons

Up next was UP, which toted the same record as the Archers at 4-1. It was a seesaw game which the Archers could have won, but for a weak final quarter. The greenies battled on fairly even terms through 3 quarters, even leading at the half by 2 and after 3 quarters by 5 at 48-43.

It looked like all the Archers needed to do to win was to just trade baskets in the 4th, and they even upped the lead to 7 on a Winston jumper with 7:44 to go, 52-45. Sounded like a good plan, but unfortunately they couldn’t hold the line against the suddenly-hot Maroons. A 12-2 blast by UP saw the lead switch hands, 54-57.

A basket by Michael Phillips and a trey by Winston tied the game for the last time at 59-all with 2:05 to go, but a quick basket 4 seconds later by Lucero gave the initiative back to UP. A couple of turnovers and an inability to find the right play setup doomed the Archers as both teams missed multiple times to end the game.

The Maroons featured two former Green Archers in their lineup: Ricci Rivero and Joel Cagulangan. While Rivero was held scoreless, it was Cagulangan who delivered one of the critical baskets during crunch time.

In hindsight, one of the key contributors to the final result was the battle of the rebounds, which the green-and-white team lost, 43-56; this gave UP 10 second chance points and in a close game, those extra possessions can make the difference, and they did. With the loss, the Archers dropped to 3rd at 4-2.

How Did They Respond After That Frustrating Loss?

The final game of the first round was against Adamson, now coached by former FEU coach Nash Racela. It’s probably not well known that Racela studied in DLSU around the time of Dindo Pumaren was playing for the Archers. Racela had been handed the job with the departure of Franz Pumaren, and his style of preparation became immediately evident.

Although having a 1-5 record, the Falcons could not be counted out, and they showed why.

The two teams battled to a draw in the 1st (15-all) and 4th (16-all) quarters, while La Salle took the 2nd (15-11) and Adamson won the 3rd by a hairline (16-15). Surprisingly close match if you look at the W-L records of the Archers up to that point (4-2) compared to Adamson (1-5).

But Adamson had an aggressive import in Douanga, who tallied a double-double with 11 points and 11 boards, and a pretty good guard in Lastimosa, who topscored for the Falcons with 15 points and 7 rebounds.

For a while, it looked like the Archers would run away with the game, as they got off to a fast start with a 15-7 lead with 5:10 left in the 1st quarter behind the hot hands of Nelle who sank three early triples. But that was all the green team scoring for the quarter as they shot blanks the rest of the way while Adamson managed to catch up after 10 minutes.

The second quarter was like rush hour traffic: scoring spurts followed by scoreless stretches. Stop and go. Tied at 24 before ending the half at 30-26. In the 3rd, a couple of lead changes, then a 5-point burst 30-25, tied again at 31, then a sprint to 41-33, ending the 3rd at 45-42, then tied again at 45, a mini-run by the Falcons 45-51 and 47-53. Things weren’t looking good because we had lost the momentum and couldn’t get it back. Baskets by Phillips and Winston allowed the Archers to creep closer, 2:37 left, then Adamson managing to stay marginally ahead, 52-55 and 54-55 before a Winston basket gave us the lead, 56-55.

Then the Balti heroics. He blocked a jumper by Hanapi, recovered the ball, leading to a clutch 3pointer by Nelle to give us some breathing room, 59-55, 22 ticks left.

Game over? Not quite.

Adamson timeout. During our huddle, Derek gave instructions to use our fouls, having logged just one at this point. Game resumed, no fouls given, and a corner trey by Zaldivar suddenly made things a lot tighter, 10 seconds left. Two quick fouls sent Manuel to the line, where he rattled in the first before cooly sinking the second. 9 ticks to go, we lead by 3, and you know that Adamson could only try a triple. Out of timeouts, they rushed the ball up the court, got Zaldivar free 4 feet beyond the arc, and he had enough space to get a shot off. But unfortunately for him, Balti stayed with him, stretched out and blocked the desperation attempt. Game over. Whew.

What didn’t go quite right?

First off, the rebounding. Adamson had 42 boards to our 39. Not a big margin, but we tend to lose games in which we’re outrebounded. We also shot poorly from the field: 22/65 (34%) total fgs, and 6/18 on 3s. The triples came from Nelle (4/5) and Joaqui Manuel (2/2); no one else made one.If we can’t put the basketball in the net, we probably won’t win that many games.

And assists – a good indicator of teamwork, was mired in single digits at 9. True, this was a low scoring game, but only 9 assists in 22 made field goals shows that our points came more from individual moves rather than passes.

The nice stuff

By the way, did we mention Joaqui Manuel? Benched for the last two games, he started the game, and made quite a difference in the 3rd quarter, triggering a scoring run of 10 straight points all by himself. Manuel iced the victory with a pair of clutch fts to end the game and top score for the team with 14 points. Not sure if this is his career high with the Archers, but it comes close.

A pleasant surprise has been the turnovers – 12 this game. These have been trending downward, and should continue once the players become more familiar and trusting with each other.

And free throws – we finished with more made than missed – 11/15! Just 73%, still could be better, but not bad at all.

Balti, while he may not be scoring much, contributes both in other stats and in ways not found in the stat sheet. His 2 blocks in crunch time helped preserve the win, his movement, ready screens, and gravity (he attracts a lot of attention towards himself, allowing his teammates to get freer), and his composure were crucial in steadying the team.

After the first round, where are we?

Still very much a work-in-progress. There’s no substitute for time together when it comes to team sports. Particularly when most of the players are new to the team, and were only able to practice together few months ago. That lack of familiarity is particularly evident against teams that have been together for a while, like Ateneo. When the going gets tough, they have to lean on each other, to know what everyone can and will do, and they can almost intuitively anticipate each other’s move. Not there yet.

We won against teams we were supposed to beat, such as UE, UST, NU, and Adamson. FEU was considered as a threat but we handled them well, at least in the first round. But recent games have shown that these teams have started showing signs of life, perhaps because they don’t want to be the team at the bottom of the standings. So we can’t assume that there will be sure wins in the second round. To win, we’ll have to play well for 40 minutes, no less.

Derek wasn’t really setting up opponent-specific game plans in the first round, probably focusing more on the fundamentals of his system that he wants his players to learn and eventually master. He’s still teaching. And hopefully the boys are learning, and learning fast, because it’s such a short tournament. For example, Adamson’s offensive patterns, particularly around the 3point line, are his pet patterns when he was coaching FEU. On his teams, everyone can shoot from all designated points around the arc. Everyone. Other teams have pet patterns that they use most of the time. The challenge for Derek and his assistants is to dissect the opponents’ game and devise ways to throw them out of their comfort level. Against the teams above us, that will be critical, because if Ateneo and UP get into their groove, they will definitely be tough to beat. And the same will go for all the other teams, who care capable of beating us if they become confident and comfortable in their play.

Most of the teams in the UAAP, have specific plays to kick the ball out to an open man in the event of a trapping and double-teaming defense. That’s how our opponents have tried to capitalize on the Archers’ halfcourt pressure defense. Most teams try variations of the pick-and-roll to attack our “switch on everything” tactics, isolate some of our players like Nwankwo, on the perimeter where a fast slasher can drive past while having their big slide inside to receive a pass or fight for the rebound.

At the same time, Derek’s also still evaluating what he can expect from his players in real game-time situations with all the accompanying pressure. So he’s still mixing and matching the rotation. Those who’ve seen most of the action are Balti, Nelle, Winston, Lojera, Nonoy, Nwankwo, the Phillips brothers, and Manuel. That’s a very short 8-9 man rotation. Limited minutes so far have been given to Lim, Galman, Austria, and Cuajao. Escandor, Cu, and Turco have yet to see action, while Estacio, Buensalida, Macalalag, and Cortez are on the reserve list, and will not play (and therefore not lose any eligibility) unless one of the 16-person lineup are unable to play due to Covid.

Maybe in the 2nd round, he’ll be making specific game plans.

And hopefully his teachings will have become ingrained in the team. We’ll know when we see the team play against Ateneo on Tuesday, April 12. Ateneo’s a good team, and will definitely apply the same game plan against us, possibly with a few tweaks to match against our better players. If the Archers don’t fold under pressure, if they maintain their composure and keep the game close, we’ll be ok. A win would just be a bonus.

As long as we qualify for the playoffs, we will have achieved a milestone after failing to get to the final 4 in the last season. It will show that our players have absorbed the teachings of Derek, and that his system is taking root. That gives us optimism, because he has a winner’s mindset and the track record that goes with it. He has the quality of talents now that he didn’t have in other schools he coached. He’ll get it done.