Not just yet. But maybe next time we play them, hopefully in the playoffs, the result might be different.
This was the impression most of us had after the Green Archers dropped their much-awaited second round matchup against Ateneo, 67-77 last Saturday. The loss snapped the Archers’ modest winning streak, and showed that the team still has a bit to go before it can contend for the championship. Perhaps a bit more confidence, some presence of mind – the gap wasn’t so much in skill as it was in maturity and time spent together as a team under a system.
Where did the game get away from us?
In the first quarter, where the Archers stumbled out of the tipoff, turned over the ball on our very first possession, and allowed the Blue Eagles to get into a comfortable groove and seize the game initiative. There were 4 turnovers in the first 4 minutes, and we trailed 2-11 as a result. During that fateful stretch, Ateneo scored on 6 out of their first 8 possessions. That jittery start cost us dearly, and from that point on, the Archers had to play catch up, coming close but never quite pulling it off against the defending champs who were brimming with confidence after that hot start. At the end of the first 10 minutes, we trailed 10-26, and the game was looking like it would be a rout.
Nerves got the better of the team in those first 10 minutes, and they could only manage to sink 2 out of 11 tries from the field. However, the foul throws were surprisingly going in, 5/6, and that’s what kept us from another single digit quarter. But the Archers regrouped in the second, led by Almond who connected on 3 out of 6 tries from afar. The team fought back on all fronts, dominating the boards 17-10 (offensive 7-2), assists 6-1, total field goal attempts 21-15, second chance points 6-0, while forcing the Blue Eagles into 3 turnovers while we had none. At the half, we trailed by just 6, 29-35, with the momentum on our side.
After the break, the Archers cut the lead down to 2 thrice, at 33-35, 35-37, and again at 42-44, and looked poised to pounce. But consecutive baskets by the Blue Eagles and misses from our boys allowed the Eagles to coast to an 11-point lead, 46-57 as our defense failed to maintain the pressure on the Ateneo shooters. In the last quarter, Ateneo simply matched our scoring output 20-21 to coast to a victory which played out much the same way as our first round encounter. We allowed Ateneo to lead at the start, rallied to make the game close, but gave way in the closing stretches.
Our inability to stop Buenafe from the long court and inside cost us dearly. Unfortunately for us, he chose this game to play his best game in a couple of seasons, hitting 3 treys and getting into the lane for 24 points. If we ever get to play the Eagles in the playoffs, we’ll need an answer to this veteran.
And therein lay the difference. Talent-wise, not much separated the two teams. But while the green-and-white was able to field players capable of matching up individually with their counterparts, as a team, the Eagles were a bit more cohesive, more composed, less excited, having played together much longer, and having 4 championships.
What can we glean from this loss?
Well, the team is still showing some uncertainty and nervousness, and unfortunately we allowed our opponents to seize the early initiative. It’s not easy playing catch-up, particularly when you spot the opponents a lead that size.
But we can take heart at how they came back in the second and third quarters to make it a game. This team has the ability to compete with the best, but has to learn to enter a game with 100% intensity right at the tip-off. A strong start is essential to putting the opponents on their back foot. If we had started the game strongly, it’s possible that Ateneo would not have built that early confidence.
We still have some surprises up our sleeves. Oda saw action for the first time in a few games; he generated instant offense and energy, and helped guard Ravena who was threatening to dominate the game with his scoring. Oda was perfect from the field, 4 out of 4, with an assist. Yutien came out of sick bay to help in those crucial stretches in the 2nd and 3rd quarters when we rallied. However, he was still obviously hobbled by his balky ankle, and was limited to just 11 minutes. Without him, Salva was able to score 12 points, 5 early to help stake Ateneo to that first quarter lead, and 7 late to help preserve the win. If Yutien were healthy, it’s possible that Salva would not have gotten his points, and Yutien’s presence in the lane would have meant that those easy 4th quarter lane penetrations would not have been, well, as easy.
Once again, Jeron showcased his scoring ability, leading the team with 22 points. However, he needed 21 attempts from the field to do it. Almond had another good game, hitting 4 out of 11 from afar to contribute 20 points. Oda and AVO tallied 8 points each, while Norbert, Jed, and Jovet rounded up the scoring with 4, 3, and 2 points respectively, Norbert had a subpar game, as he managed to haul down only 4 boards but contributed 6 assists. He will need to develop a more diverse and effective shot repertoire in the paint, as his moves have already been studied by the opponents.
Room for improvement
We need to work on defending the picks and screens. Ateneo burned our defense late in the game with their picks, which we never really managed to resolve, leading to virtually uncontested layups. Our zone was easily popped when the Blue Eagles were able to hit the open shots from afar, making 3 treys early. We stuck with it a bit too long without making any adjustments, allowing the lead to balloon.
Possibly because of the lack of maturity, the team wasn’t able to show a sense of urgency when Ateneo pulled away in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Our players stopped looking to run, and would jog up the ball to set up instead of trying to create a secondary break. Playing against the set defense of Ateneo is much more difficult than trying to make them run, because Slaughter in the paint is a difficult obstacle to overcome. That limits the possibility of driving the lane, and makes it more difficult to score. On the other hand, attacking the transition defense might just allow us more uncontested baskets. Food for thought.
In the game, our players displayed a occasional lack of presence of mind, failing to react appropriately to certain situations which Ateneo took full advantage of. A case in point, nobody going after a loose ball which should have easily been a defensive rebound; our players were all ball watching, and the ball was easily collected by an Ateneo guard at the foul line leading to another possession for them. Our players will have to keep their wits about them for all 40 minutes of the game. Every game.
Although there has been a significant improvement in the individual skills, team play, and understanding of the new system, some attention may have to be focused on the shooting basics of our taller players, Norbert and AVO. Both are big, athletic players who can be (but are not yet) dominating in the paint on both offense and defense. And while their defending is quite effective, both are one-armed shooters who have problems shooting under some pressure; in fact, AVO has missed a few wide open undergoal shots by himself this season. Coach Jun Limpot has his work cut out for him to undo some bad habits picked up over the years.
A lot. The system has been implanted pretty well in the team. They more or less know their roles and what to expect from each other, although there are still some lapses. But nothing a bit more time won’t cure.
Our offense is fairly potent, with LA, Jeron and Almond capable of consistently lighting up the scoreboard. And now Oda has re-emerged from his hibernation to remind us of what he damage can do to the opponents’ defense. We can score in bunches, from almost all angles, inside and outside, from passing plays to individual drives. The weapons arsenal is pretty well stocked.
The boys react pretty well to pressure, and in most situations, can compete on even terms with the best, as long as they haven’t dug themselves into a hole too big to dig themselves out of. And as long as they retain their presence of mind and aggressiveness at all times. Because the game ain’t over until the final buzzer.
At 6-4, and with a better loss record than NU, we’re in good shape to contend for the playoffs. We still play UP, NU, FEU, and ADU. If we want to avoid complications in making the playoffs, all of these remaining 4 games have to be considered “must win” games. Our team has to act as if making the playoffs is entirely in their hands, in their control. Which it actually is.
We go up against UP on Thursday. The Maroons are a dangerous lot, physical and street smart, and can shoot and score if we allow them to. They’re desperate to get out of the cellar, and would love nothing more than to get the scalp of a contender. That’s ok as long as it’s not our scalp they add to their belt.
If we don’t go into the game expecting a walk in the part, if we just play our game, stick to the system, stay aggressive and alert, we should prevail, whether by a rout (probably not) or just by a few points (more likely). It doesn’t have to be pretty, JUST WIN!