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MANILA, Philippines – Following De La Salle University’s crushing defeat to rival Ateneo in the opening week of UAAP Season 86 in October, the despondent Green Archers anticipated new head coach Topex Robinson would point fingers in light of the disappointing result.
Why? Perhaps it was nature, because our first instincts as humans can be to find an outlet to relieve our anger and frustration, powerful entities of emotion. Or maybe it was something that past experience led them to believe is the norm when dealing with pressure-packed situations of extreme highs and lows.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Because Robinson didn’t want a theme of mistrust to invade the circle of brotherhood he was working tirelessly to establish with this special batch of Green Archers, whose potential in recent years was overshadowed by extraneous circumstances.
“I told them, ‘Dito niyo ako masusubukan (This is where you’ll get to test me),’” he recalled his conversation with the young men in what could have been a sliding doors moment.
“I owned up to that loss. I took it like a man and I make sure I protect these players.”
In the grand scheme of things, that moment will be a brief hiccup in history. But to each and every guy in that locker room, it meant something powerful. Trust was promised, and actions spoke louder than words.
Today, La Salle stands as the hottest team in the UAAP, winners of eight straight after triumphing in their rematch against Ateneo in a battle worthy of adding to the rich history between both proud universities’ famed rivalry.
La Salle has all but secured a twice-to-beat advantage for the Final Four, the real battlefield for the long-time Animo faithful who have starved for championship relevancy. Passion, belief, and angas are back in the spirit of the La Salle crowd which hasn’t felt this type of undeniable connection to their team since the days when Ben Mbala floated for breathtaking moments in the sky.
“One of the things we discussed coming into this game was to always be in the moment,” Robinson shared. “We didn’t want to let this moment slip by just because of the pressure of playing against Ateneo… the kind of moment that 15 years from now, I told them, ‘You’re going to talk about this.’”
Back and forth the Green Archers and Blue Eagles threw haymakers at one another, embodying what it means when savants say that basketball is a game of runs, akin to art. With each run legions of fanatics in blue and green staggered between elation and despondency. Lips were bitten. Sweat beads dripped from temples. Passionate humans screamed, raised their fists, and declared their allegiances.
“One Big Fight!”
The characters might change.
“Animo La Salle!”
But the stakes will always remain the same.
This was the best test for Robinson’s Archers before the Final Four as they swept the UAAP second round for the first time since 2017, the last season DLSU made the Finals. They now have defeated every team in the league, including other counterparts they might face down the road with everything on the line.
Ateneo, playing its best basketball of the season and in dire need of victory to make the Final Four, hit La Salle with everything it had, so much so that Tab Baldwin complimented how smart his team’s process was when rallying from behind during the contest.
“They fought hard, fought so well,” remarked Mike Phillips. “I give credit to Ateneo for giving us a tough, tough win. Hopefully we can use this momentum going into the Final Four, because there’s going to be a lot of tough matchups, a lot of tough games going ahead.”
And how will they navigate that?
“It’s just about trust,” Robinson answered. “This is a relationship and we build it. We go through a lot of challenging times also. We bicker, we fight, but at the end of the day, we build trust.”
That trust is now evident in almost everything La Salle does as a team on the basketball court.
Defensive assignments are precise because of communication, whether that’s in press, zone or man coverage. Ball movement on the offensive end has exponentially improved with drives, kick-outs, and post actions. Stars are relied upon with the ball in their hands in critical junctures of final minutes.
Bench support never lags behind.
“We love the way our guys are helping each other out,” Robinson said. “We have one of the best cheerleaders in Ben (Phillips) making sure that he grounds everybody, including me. That’s a testament of how much guys are willing to sacrifice not to see the floor but genuinely cheering each other, making sure that we are our brother’s keeper and protecting this circle of ours.”
And when all else fails, it helps to have the MVP in Kevin Quiambao, who said he has two imminent goals:
To stay in the present and win a championship.
“He ups the level of everything,” Robinson stated.
By defeating Ateneo, by dominating National University, by outdueling UP, and by running past the rest of the UAAP, La Salle, as a team, has upped the overall level of competition this season. Although far from perfect, they have turned from the wildcard to the hunters, backed by a community which has long anticipated its return invite to the final dance.
It won’t be easy. In Robinson’s words, “UP’s going to be there, Ateneo’s going to be there, Adamson’s also going to be there knocking, and NU’s always going to be strong.” Sometimes in college basketball only the unpredictable is predictable. La Salle’s trust in one another will be tested. But will their composure be rattled?
“You see them smiling and just trying to remind me that, ‘Coach, this is just a game,’” Robinson shared about such a moment that transpired against Ateneo.
“There’s more to this game than meets the eye. I was really calm and I was also okay in the moment, just being there, fighting with these young guys here.”
In the words of their leader, the Green Archers have decided they are willing to live with whatever the result of a game is as long as they can be proud of how they performed once the lights shine bright on the hardwood. So far, it’s resulted in victory after another, yielding from the fundamental basis of this run: Trust.
When Evan Nelle hit the deciding dagger against Ateneo, it sent the sea of green at the Araneta Coliseum into a frenzy. In almost unspeakable words, the following moments provided a time machine back to the past while promising what could lay ahead in the future.
Two pals in green looked at each other with beaming smiles on their faces.
“We’re back?” asked one of them.
“We’re back,” responded the other.
It’s been a minute.