DLSU Green Archers: Looking back before moving forward

Six minutes and 39 seconds remained in the third quarter of the most crucial game in college basketball. Game 3 of the UAAP seniors’ men basketball finals, for all the marbles, between two proud schools with rich histories, had just reached a turning point.

Jeric Teng, the undisputed leader of the team sporting yellow, the guy who had battled back from a devastating shoulder injury in a mission to deliver España a championship in his last season, just struck a deadly blow to the Green Archers.

With each dribble, he backed down his defender, the shorter Almond Vosotros. He had done this all series long; it felt like second nature to him. The guy in green and white fought valiantly, but it felt like the inevitable would take place.

With each dribble he got closer to the rim, closer to the spot he needed to get to. When he got there, he gave a little shove to create some space, turned to the right, and prepared to release his jumper that would put a chokehold on the team standing between him and his championship.

Vosotros jumped to contest the shot; only he didn’t know he had just been tricked. Teng brought the ball back down, spun to the left. The stroke, the follow through, the rhythm; it was all perfect.

The basket was good. Suddenly, what was once a close game was on the verge of turning into a blowout. The scorecard read 40-25, UST over DLSU, as the yellow-shadowed side of the Big Dome was sent to a ruckus, screaming their hearts out to the chants of “GO USTEEEE! GO USTEEEE! GO, GO, GO, GO!”

“TIME-OUT, DE LA SALLE GREEN ARCHERS!” screamed the game’s barker. Vosotros could only shake his head. Jeric’s brother, Jeron, went back to the La Salle bench, knowing his team was nearing a breaking point.

Hundreds of feet away, fans wearing green sunk to their seats, disbelief, grief, and sadness creeping in. “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be this year,” said one guy wearing a DLSU shirt in the upper bleachers of the Araneta Coliseum, as La Salle’s Animo Squad tried to instill confidence back in the defeated crowd.

The guy took out his glasses, and bowed his head in what looked like a ceremonious display of defeat.

Maybe he was right. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

A target on their backs

They sounded like a broken record, though it didn’t come as a surprise.

“La Salle,” they said, over and over again. Six times, actually.

"La Salle is still the favorites, I think they have a better lineup this year," FEU’s Coach Nash Racela said during a roundtable discussion in Monday’s, July 7, UAAP press conference. “It’s obvious La Salle is the team to beat,” added NU’s Coach Altamirano.

Ateneo assistant coach Yuri Escueta took it further: “La Salle is going to be the barometer for this season.”

"In my humble opinion, I don't focus too much on expectations and what the future is according to the opinions of others," said DLSU head coach Juno Sauler.

Three weeks before last year’s UAAP season, La Salle made a coaching change, replacing Gee Abanilla, the guy who led the team to the Final Four in 2012, with one of his assistants, the stoic and reserved Sauler.

Many wondered why such a move was made so close to the season. Some say it was because Abanilla ascended to coach in the PBA, which he later on would with Petron.

Nevertheless, Sauler was placed in the hot seat, the pressure of leading a team with hefty expectations on his shoulders.

“All the teams are tough. All the teams. Whatever it is people think, or their opinion, we don’t want to put that into our heads. What’s more important is what we go through every day,” Sauler added during the press conference.

It was a similar mantra used by his team last year. The motivation that helped them get to Game 3 in the finals against UST.

“What happened in the past, [has] past. People have their own opinion what’s going to happen in the future. We try to keep our mind off those opinions,” Sauler added.

His warning, whether it was for his players, the La Salle community, or whoever else thought winning a championship was easy, was clear: last year’s result does not carry over to 2014.

“They badly needed that!” said ABS-CBN analyst TJ Manotoc. He was right. Off the time-out, Sauler had diagrammed a well-executed play – one that got Vosotros a wide-open shot. Splash. The lead was down to 13.

Moments later, Jeron attacked the rim, using his physical tools to draw a foul on Karim Abdul. Teng made both free throws despite having struggled in prior games, much to the delight of the students studying in Taft. The deficit was trimmed to 11.

Abdul scored six points in a span of three minutes, but La Salle had gotten their mojo back. On the break, Teng once again attacked Abdul, perfectly aware he was in foul trouble. A side-step did the trick, and the lane was open for an easy lay-up. It was good. The lead was down to seven, 46-39, and suddenly, half the crowd didn’t feel so silent anymore.

UST head coach Pido Jarencio was still not calling for a time-out. “GO!” he’d scream every time his guys got a rebound.

Abdul now started to miss; his jumper clanked. Not long after, Vosotros got open again. His three-pointer hit nothing but the bottom of the net. It was a four-point game. Abdul missed a lay-up again, lagged back down on defense, awarding La Salle an advantage on the break. Teng’s lay-up was too easy. 46-44.

What the hell was going on, the Growling Tigers must have wondered.

UST needed to stop the bleeding. Clark Bautista, the club’s best three-point shooter, was wide open in the corner. While the ball was in the air, La Sallians held their breaths. It was far right, a miss. Right after, it was Thomas Torres’ turn to be open from the corner, and it was UST’s fans that then closed their eyes, praying not another lead would turn into shambles.

It went in. La Salle, after seemingly conceding defeat, had regained the lead in mindboggling fashion.

Jarencio still didn’t call time-out. One quarter remained. The “GO LA SALLE” chants were back.

History was about to be made.

Versatility

DLSU welcomes four new rookies this year, each of whom will play a different role in the team’s bid for a repeat.

“What’s nice about the rookies is they play different positions. Julian plays the two. Prince Rivero plays the three. Terrence Mustre plays the one. And then Abu Tratter can play the four and five, so medyo versatile ang group ng rookies.”

The team still has a problem to solve, though. Gone now is LA Revilla, last season’s floor general who declared for the PBA Draft in 2013. Thomas Torres seems like the favorite to take over the point guard role, but that responsibility to could be given to Vosotros as well.

Sauler, however, said taking care of the ball would be a collective effort.

“Not only Thomas and Almond, but it can be Jeron, it can be (Kib) Montalbo, it can be the rookies – Julian Sargent, Terrence Mustre. They have their own style of play that’s different from LA. Whatever that is, we want to maximize their individual talent.”

Speaking of talent, Sauler said that Teng, who’s already got a nifty collection of moves and abilities, has added weapons to his arsenal:

“He’s improved a lot on his outside shot, free throws, so you’ll probably see him shoot more threes this year,” he said, stating something the Green Archers’ rivals won’t like to hear.

Teng will first get a chance to display his expanded range on Saturday, July 12, when DLSU opens its season against FEU – the team they eliminated in the Final Four round.

The Tamaraws lost former league MVPs Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia, but remain a deadly threat, according to the DLSU coach.

“All the teams are tough. Also FEU. They have a deep bench. I know they lost two players, but what we’ve seen in the FilOil is that they’re playing more as a team. They’re very-well coached, so it’s going to be a tough game for us.”

But the team that confuses Sauler the most right now? That’s the squad La Salle will face the following Saturday, July 12.

Their good old friends from Katipunan.

“Honestly, wala akong alam sa Ateneo,” Sauler admitted (I honestly don’t have a clue about Ateneo).

“The only idea we will get is when we see them in their first game, which is why it’s a little hard for us kasi second game namin sila (they’re our second game). We can only base our judgment on one game.”

The Blue Eagles open their season on Sunday, July 12, against Adamson.

Rest assured, the Green Archers’ head coach will be watching.

Four quarters weren’t enough to decide the most heart-wrenching game in college basketball. Aljon Mariano’s jumper at the end of regulation clanked off. The match was heading for an extra five minutes, shaping up to be one not for the faint of heart.

La Salle struck first in overtime after nearly two minutes had gone by without a basket scored. A broken play led to an easy lay-up for Vosotros. The scoreboard atop Araneta Coliseum shifted to 67-65, La Salle, as hearts started to beat faster.

UST failed to answer back, and Vosotros got two more looks. But both shots went haywire, while the clock continued to melt. 1:49 remained. Jeric Teng then missed a three, followed by his brother throwing the ball away before falling to the ground in disappointment. The clock read 1:19.

Knees started to buckle. Cramps were victimizing the players. The pressure was getting too severe.

Jarencio called for time. Get the ball to Ferrer in the post, he told them. And they did. Ferrer delivered. It was a tied game. La Salle tried to answer but couldn’t.

Less than 40 seconds remained, and Jeric Teng had the ball again, the match deadlocked. It was the perfect situation. Just like when he put the Growling Tigers up 15, he had Vosotros to his back again, each dribble getting him closer to his spot. DLSU fans had seen the movie before; it was like déjà vu.

Once again, Teng delivered. 69-67, UST.

However, little brother wouldn’t go down. Jeron attacked the paint relentlessly and was awarded with a visit to the charity stripe. All the hours he spent practicing on his free throws were about to be tested.

“The biggest free throws of his college career,” said Manotoc. And he was right.

Ferrer tried psyching out Teng before his free throws. But it didn’t seem to work, as the La Salle star made his first attempt. His second, however, bricked.

And that’s when it happened.

After tracking down the rebound, Mariano, who had struggled all series long, held onto the ball for a few seconds, and then threw an erratic pass that spiraled out of bounds. Jarencio was dumbfounded. His teammates raised their hands in disbelief. There was a collective gasp amongst the UST fans, both in the arena and around the country. La Salle had a new breath of life, as the next 26.7 seconds would determine the fates of both schools.

“Almond Vosotros for Norbert Torres,” said the game’s barker. It was a simple substitution, one that happens all the time. But the consequences would turn out to be severe for one of the teams.

La Salle’s Teng had a chance at retribution, getting the ball at the top of the key. He forayed into the teeth of UST’s defense and found an open Vosotros in the wing. The deadly shooter got the ball, and UST’s Teng quickly tried to close out, anticipating a 3-ball about to be set loose.

However, this time, it was Vosotros who outsmarted the Growling Tiger. One dribble later, and the Green Archer was open to let his arrow, on in this case the basketball, fly, possibly deciding the outcome of the spectacle.

Images of La Salle greats Ren-Ren Ritualo and Dino Aldeguer hitting big shots started to enter the minds of old La Salle alumni. Students closed their eyes, not able to take the severity of the moment. Some held hands. UST fans screamed, “WALA!” all together.

The ball was in the air for what felt like eternity.

New challenges

It’s been nine months since the last UAAP season, which means whatever La Salle accomplished last year doesn’t make them instant champions in 2014.

“There’s no momentum. That was nine months away,” Sauler explained.

Nonetheless, the battle-worn Green Archers went through so much that should aid them in their quest.

“The experience always helps, even what we experience in practice. What we experience during tune-up games, that’s the same,” according to Sauler, who added that the team looked to improve on some of its bad habits that was prominent in the FIlOil tourney, which they won.

“After the FilOil, we experimented on a few. It’s not nice to see the ball not moving and getting stagnant, so that’s one thing we were trying to address after FilOil.”

Sauler also had a message for the team’s supporters, but did not guarantee anything.

“I don’t know. We’ll do our best,” he answered when asked whether DLSU will reign supreme in 2014. “[I] just hope they (La Salle fans) have fun watching the games.”

Vosotros’ jumper was good, sending the La Salle crowd into frenzy, while UST tried to fire back. Later on, with the lead up to two, 71-69, Abdul would get one last opportunity to win the title for his team, as 2.3 seconds remained not only in the game, but also in the collegiate playing careers of Teng and Bautista – and later on, as it would turn out, Jarencio’s college coaching career.

Tears flowed down from both sides – fans, players, and coaches. Those in green hugged each other in victory, while the ones wearing yellow consoled each other in defeat. Confetti started to fall. The Teng Brothers produced a moment mid-court that will go on to last a lifetime.

Coach Juno Sauler had done it. For all the expectations and questions prior to the season, he had done what his predecessors couldn’t.

However, he still didn’t crack a smile, not even a sigh of relief.

There would be time for that later, he probably thought. Or maybe he already was thinking about next season.

“What’s a dynasty?”

In the turn of the century, La Salle won four straight championships under the guidance of Coach Franz Pumaren and his solid cast of players, building a dynasty that would go on to be remembered by the sports history books. The team won another in 2007 – following a year of being suspended – but went through tough ordeals after.

 

DLSU is now back at the top. And like Sauler’s rival coaches said, they are the favorites to repeat.

However, the Green Archers are taking a one-game-at-a-time approach – the same method that helped them win the title last year.

“We want to think like last year. Focus on getting good practice every day. Hopefully it transpires in the game. And then what we experience day in and day out, in practices and in games, hopefully, throughout the season, it can help us,” said Sauler.

But one has to wonder: could another championship embark the team on another potential dynasty? Could another string of multiple championships be in the horizon?

When he was asked, Sauler’s answer was simple:

“I don’t even know what dynasty means,” he said with a smirk.

Maybe he does like to joke after all. – Rappler.com