On Sunday night, the defending UAAP champions returned

MANILA, Philippines – For the first time in Season 77, it felt like the defending champions were back.

When the final buzzer sounded across the corners of the Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday evening, July 27, those who were wearing the colors of University of the East just tilted their heads in disbelief.

The game was in their control, victory nearly assured. But when the fourth quarter came to a close, it was those in green celebrating what was a staggering come-from-behind win.

But more than that, they were celebrating the return of their De La Salle Green Archers. 

The same team that ruled the UAAP a year before. 

The same squad that had been absent in the 2014 season’s first two games, maybe even the third as they barely scrapped by National University.

The group of guys who displayed such will and an unrelenting attitude that their fans proudly chanted “Go La Salle” all throughout the fourth quarter.

The Green Archers had no business beating the Red Warriors on Sunday night. But they did it anyway. Once again, they dug deep down and found the ability to rally from 10 points down to escape with the win.

Just like they did multiple times in 2013.

At least for one night, the Green Archers were back.

A rookie comes to the rescue

Thirty-six turnovers, the most the Green Archers had in a UAAP game dating back to 2003. On some possessions it felt like a victory whenever DLSU managed to just cross the halfcourt line and avoid UE’s lethal full-court press, instilled by, ironically, the Pumarens. Eleven in the first, 11 in the second, and 10 in the third. It wouldn’t stop.

Jason Perkins, the team’s best player this season, was limited to just two points in 17 minutes of action and fouled out in the fourth quarter. Arnold Van Opstal followed suit not long after, leaving Coach Juno Sauler to go with instinct and insert unseasoned rookie Prince Rivero at the four, neutralizing DLSU’s biggest strength: its size.

“Siguro binigyan lang ni Lord si coach nang parang fire na, ‘o, si Prince, pwede mo i-try ‘yan,’” the rookie would say after the game.

(Maybe God just gave Coach Sauler a message to put me in.)

The 2013 Jr. NCAA MVP brought something La Salle seemed to lack prior to the fourth quarter: energy. On both sides of the floor, the young Archer invigorated his team. His ability to help on defense despite being undersized played a role in stagnating UE’s offense, and it was his first three-point play that brought some life back what had been a silent DLSU crowd.

“We needed Prince because Arnold and Jason fouled out,” Sauler said about the freshman after the game, before indicating that his decision to go with Rivero after Van Opstal’s was “just probably intuition.”

“Sometimes we have to go with our gut feel. Prince has been playing the three spot for us, but we decided to try him out at the four. Just a gut feel.”

Needless to say, Rivero rewarded his coach. The rookie would go on to score five more points after his first basket in the fourth – the first of which broke the ice and gave his team its first taste of the lead since the first quarter, 56-54.

His energy, overall, spearheaded a tremendous final quarter for the guys in green. A fourth quarter where they had only four turnovers; where they outshot the Red Warriors (9-of-17 vs. 3-of-15); where they outrebounded the Red Warriors (17 vs. 8); where they had more assists than the Red Warriors (5 vs. 0); and where they absolutely dominated the paint (16 points vs. 2)

“Siguro binigyan lang ako ni Lord nang chance na mapakita ko yung talent ko,” according to Rivero. “Bliness ako ni God para mabigyan nang dagdag na playing time kanina sa fourth quarter, especially nung crucial, saakin binigyan ni coach yung trust.”

(Maybe God just gave me the chance to show my talent. I was blessed by God with more playing time in the fourth quarter, especially during the crucial stretches, when coach trusted me.)

In a way, it was like the breakout performance for the former La Salle Greenhills project. His stats may not have been as glaring as the other impressive performances of his co-rookies, but his contribution to the victory was invaluable.

“Hindi ko naman nakuha yung game ko kanina (Sunday evening) dahil maganda yung gising ko eh. Pinagtrabuhan ko siya ever since natapos yung NCAA ko nung high school,” he claimed.

(I didn’t have a good game because I woke up on the right side of the bed. I’ve worked for this since my high school career finished.)

Jeron Teng of La Salle scored 18 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, including several clutch plays down the stretch. Photo by Kevin Dela Cruz/Rappler

Jeron Teng of La Salle scored 18 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, including several clutch plays down the stretch.

Photo by Kevin Dela Cruz/Rappler

And without a doubt, his showing against UE will inspire him to keep working and be ready for the next time a similar situation presents itself.

“I keep on working extra, extra, extra, extra, and hopefully ngayon, mag-extra ako ulit.” (Hopefully, I keep working hard more.)

“Prince stepping up – that was a big thing for us. And it’s also good for him as a rookie,” added DLSU big man Norbert Torres, who finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds, while battling with the Red Warriors’ giant towers Charles Mammie and Moustapha Arafat in the block.

Ever since he was inserted in the starting lineup going back to La Salle’s game against National University, which they also won, Torres has repaid Coach Sauler’s trust. Each point and each rebound were humongous on Sunday night, not to mention the times he handled the ball as a center when UE’s press threatened to force another turnover.

“We need Norbert because of the imports of others teams,” Sauler said. “He’s been defending and rebounding.”

Torres has been doing those two important factors at a high level. But more than that, he’s been displaying the leadership needed by the team to bounce back from its 0-2 start to the season, and from the loss of the starting point guard, Thomas Torres.

“Maybe if Thomas played, instead of 36 (turnovers), maybe 35 lang (only),” Sauler joked after the game. 

But La Salle clearly missed its main ball-handler yesterday, despite the valiant effort of sophomore Kib Montalbo.

“It’s because of Thomas, playing without Thomas,” Norbert Torres said after the game on why DLSU gave up the ball so much, before mentioning that he has confidence in the point guard’s replacement. “He’s (Montalbo) still learning, but he’ll be able to step up.”

“Actually si Thomas kasama parin namin sa practice, kasama sa dorm, kasama parin siya sa lahat,” added Rivero. “Nandiyan lagi sa tabi namin, sumusuporta saamin.”

(Thomas is still with the team. He’s with us in practice, in the dorm; he’s with us in everything. He’s there by our side, supporting us.)

Montalbo, meanwhile, while getting used to the added pressure of taking over a role he didn’t expect to have entering the season, has received advice from the guy whose starting job he temporarily has: “Tinuturuan ako ni Thomas na just play the game lang.”

(Thomas told me to just play the game.)

Not seeing Torres, a fan-favorite in the DLSU community, in action has been tough to muster for both Green Archer fans and the players of the team. He has been an integral aspect since his rookie year, and played a major role in establishing La Salle as a championship squad last season. His absence, undoubtedly, has taken away a significant part of the team’s core from last season.

But at least against University of the East, La Salle looked more like the Green Archers of Season 76 than its Season 77 version prior to Sunday night, even with the absence of the playmaker.

The road to victory was so ugly. So messy. So disorganized. Over and over again, DLSU shot itself on the foot.

But someway, somehow, they came out on top. They managed to do what they accomplished over and over again in the second round of last season’s eliminations and in the playoffs: shift to that extra gear in the fourth quarter and come away victorious, beating the odds. 

So La Salle.

Moving forward

“Maganda naman yung outcome kahit na marami kaming turnovers. Siguro nag-stick lang kami sa isa’t-isa hangang sa dulo,” said Rivero.

(The outcome of the game was good even if we had many turnovers. We just stuck by each other until the very end.)

However, there is cause to pause. If anything, UE further put to the light the blueprint to beat La Salle, which was established by FEU, Ateneo, and to an extent, NU in the past few weeks: the press.

“We committed 36 turnovers so we have to adjust also,” said Montalbo.

He’s right. Despite spending days prepping for UE’s press, DLSU failed miserably. 36 times in fact.

“We were lucky to pull this through with 36 turnovers,” Coach Sauler admitted, as he moves forward to making sure his boys don’t take their next opponents, the currently 0-3 Adamson Soaring Falcons, for granted.

But for the most part, the Green Archers know how valuable each contest is.

“Dito naman sa UAAP (Here in the UAAP), every win is important,” noted Jeron Teng, who finished with 18 points in Sunday’s win. 

“We just have to keep our composure, stay humble, and treat every game like it’s a big game,” added Norbert Torres.

Though for now, this much is true: the defending champions are closing in on their championship form from last season, if they aren’t there yet. With an easy remaining schedule, the team could potentially go on a run and build enough momentum to carry in the second round.

Against the Red Warriors, they also sent a reminder simple and clear: no one can ever count out DLSU. They are the defending champions for a reason and victory against them will not be assured until the final buzzer rings with the scoreboard showing them on the losing side.

On Sunday night, De La Salle University was back. And they made sure to let University of the East – and the rest of the UAAP – know it. - Rappler.com