by Neal Tieng
At first, it looked like a season going nowhere. After compiling a 1-3 record after the first four games, the litany of misery felt like it was going to go on forever.
The Green Archers started off losing to Ateneo on opening day by a mile, then barely squeaked past National U, dropped a 1-point heartbreaker to UE, and lost decisively to FEU, and suddenly every critic in town had written off the DLSU Green Archers.
But something clicked. It was as if we needed that dagger of a three by UE’s Rey Suerte and shaded lane dominance by FEU’s Pat Tchuete to finally awaken the winners within the Green Archers. Or was it the heckling from all fronts that finally provoked the bear?
At risk of staying at the bottom of the standings, the entire La Salle crew from top officials to ball boys knew that we had to find a solution and find it quick.
THE COHESION POINT
It was easy to declare an apocalypse along Taft Avenue after losing to lightly regarded opponents with strong opponents looming ahead. Adamson, UP and then UST were all eager to feast on the remains of the battered Green Archers. Finally, they had a chance to toy with the team that has been dominant for decades, but which was perceived to be easy pickings in their weakest season since 1987.
As they salivated while waiting for their turn, they slept on La Salle.
Adamson came first with our former coach, Franz Pumaren, at the helm. Surprised by La Salle’s prolific shooting to open the game, the Falcons realized a tad too late that they were facing a team at the point of cohesion.
With the Archers relentlessly attacking the paint, Adamson import Lenda Doanga was tagged with his second personal early in the game and eventually had to ride bench for much of the game. The Falcons were not even allowed to take flight as the Green Archers defense smothered every inch of daylight Val Chauca and Jerrick Ahanmisi tried to create and deny them any scoring rhythm.
When Adamson finally clawed back in desperation, it took all four years and four games experience of Captain Andre Caracut to drain the crucial triples to finally fry the Falcons for good.
The score, 68-61 to notch win #2.
NOT YET CONVINCED
With the Green Archers coming out victorious, many still tagged the victory as a lucky win. And the bells kept tolling on the eventual another green debacle against Season 81 runner up, UP.
Not really. La Salle surprised every corner of the UAAP world by leading UP for the entire first 39 minutes, keeping the fancied Maroons roster at bay. Against a team that is stacked with superstars, La Salle was expected to face total demolition.
Well that demolition did not happen. La Salle came out of the locker room with a new brand of team-oriented ball and a more aggressive defensive plan. Shutting down UP import Bright Akhuetie and closing out on former La Salle Greenhills stars Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero was part of a grand plan.
For the second straight match, we have a solid defensive game plan. Former Portland State starter Jaime Malonzo proved that length and speed can defend a Paras while Akhuetie had to contend with the rotation of Brandon Bates, James Laput, and Justin Baltazar on him.
Although match-ups were accurately defined, it was team defense that almost brought UP down. Maroon’s point guard Jun Manzo had ZERO assist and the whole squad from Katipunan managed 10 assists for the entire game.
Despite playing without an import, La Salle outrebounded a team with a stellar import 53-45 and manhandled the Maroons on defense forcing them to only shoot a dismal 31.43% from the field.
Leading all 39 minutes and 53 seconds, it was a freak of a win by UP.
BEAUTY IN THE STRUGGLE
Active consultant Jermayne Byrd quickly issued a cryptic message, “Beauty in the Struggle” after the Green Archers’ heart-wrenching loss.
Without looking at the big picture, a loss like that can have a devastating effect on a team’s morale.
There is only one game left in the first round and the challenge is real – get smacked by UST and end up 2-5 at the end of the first round. A 2-5 slate would allow a team to only lose once in the second round and twice if a tie is possible.
Since Season 79, we have danced on the graves of the UST Tigers by pounding them senselessly. We are talking about serious beatdown with winning margins in the 30s.
But this is a different set of UST Tigers. They have reengineered, retooled, reloaded and were ready to contend. When no team seemed to have a match for defending champions Ateneo, these cagers from Espana pushed them to the limit.
With the hyper-athletic Rhenz Abando, the versatile Mark Nonoy and leading MVP candidate Soulemane Chabi-Yo, the Growling Tigers seemed to have found their long-lost fangs.
Were we again about to get consumed by these Tigers?
Not that day.
HOT SHOOTING ARCHERS TAMED THE TIGERS
Pride always has a way of bringing out the fight in a competitor like the Green Archers, and refusing to lose and unleashing the ANIMO has been the hallmark of many generations of Archers.
And when La Salle faced the ugly possibility of sinking into a 2-5 slate which would make qualifying for the playoffs an improbable occurence, the green men had no choice but to fight back.
The whole DLSU community fought back.
With all their might and with their sharpened arrows, the Green Archers, headed by Aljun Melecio, came out of the dugout blazing. Melecio burned the entire UST defense with quick pull-ups and speedy finishes in transition and had notched double digits as early as the first quarter.
On the defensive end, La Salle denied UST any offensive rhythm. Ganging up on UST’s Chabi-Yo and putting Jaime Malonzo on to close out on UST’s Abando worked to perfection.
The suffocating La Salle defense forced UST to become a 3-point chucking team while the Green Archers were as sharp as ever. From Melecio’s solid first half, he passed the baton to Encho Serrano and La Salle played beautiful basketball in the whole of the second half keeping the desperate Tigers at bay. Serrano played his breakout game chalking up 29 points in his best UAAP game ever.
UST’s lethal gunner Renz Subido was shut down and can only manage 4 points while Abando and Nonoy were limited to only 9 apiece.
Like a serum that soothes the pain, La Salle completed their first decisive victory against a title contender 92-77 to finish the round with a 3-4 card.
FLIPPED THE SWITCH?
No. The Green Archers have no switch to flip. Only loaded teams can have the luxury of flipping the switch
We are not there yet.
But there was something that happened to the green and white, something clicked and the squad started to play like a team. After the first round, Captain Andre Caracut leads the league in assist with 4.57 per game and La Salle is the league’s best in sharing the ball with 16.71 assists per game.
La Salle made better decisions with the basketball in the last three games from an average of 21 errors per outing after 3 games, the Archers improved to 16 by the end of round 1.
Then we have the breakout kids, Serrano, Jordan Bartlett and Bates. Serrano made basket after basket on press breaks, Bates patrolled the boards while Bartlett showed he can create. Putting these pieces together with Melecio, Joaqui Manuel, Baltazar and Malonzo, you have a pretty potent team at hand.
Beyond just offense, La Salle had a good defensive scheme – protect the paint with tall and wide bodies, and this allowed the athletic and long guards close out on the shooters. This tactic became apparent in the last three games, and the Archers made quantum improvements in protecting the paint.
The term that can be best depicts this defense is disruptive, as La Salle has proven to effectively shut down passing lanes and emerge as second in the least number of assists allowed to opponents with only 12.86 assists per match.
La Salle is the third best in limiting opponents’ shot inside the shaded lane allowing only 33.34. The rest of the possessions, their opponents had to earn their markers from the stripe or using the long bombs.
CAN WE STILL MAKE IT?
La Salle is currently in a traffic jam for the 4th spot together with FEU and Adamson with a 3-4 card. In a wildly unpredictable season where the cellar dweller can beat a top-ranked team on a good shooting day, the path to the Final Four is still wide open.
The usual magic number is 7 wins and La Salle need to finish strong with at least a 4-3 card for the second round.
And this will start with National U which we will face on Sunday, October 6, 2019 at 2pm at the MOA Arena. Although we beat the Bulldogs by a hairline, the Archers will be playing their rediscovered winning ways and added confidence.
The final push is on and it starts this Sunday.
ANIMO LA SALLE!