MANILA, Philippines – Each name that De La Salle University coach Juno Sauler uttered felt like hearing a judge hand down his sentence at a court hearing for Green Archers supporters.
“Arnold (Van Opstal), I think three to five days,” Sauler started, as he talked about how long his injury-hit players would be out.
“Thomas (Torres), probably two weeks,” he mentioned next.
“Terrence Mustre, one week,” he went on.
“Kib Montalbo, they said a week or two,” he wasn’t done.
“Norbert, three to five days,” he finally finished.
Four out of five rotation pieces shelved. Five guys out. The injuries continue to pile up for the defending champions, threatening to make their bid for a repeat harder than it was supposed to be, harder than what was originally thought, when they looked invincible, according to their peers, days prior to the opening of Season 77.
“I don’t even know how we can practice five-on-five with nine players. I’ll probably ask (Assistant) Coach Allan (Caidic) to join in practice,” Sauler said. Maybe he was joking, and La Salle will figure out some other way to scrimmage during the break between the two rounds of the eliminations with only nine players healthy and ready to suit up. Or maybe he wasn’t, and the sweet shooting PBA legend turned shot caller from the bench will have to lace up his sneakers and go toe to toe with some of his players.
Either way, this much is clear: with DLSU’s main guns out and recuperating, the burden of battle falls on the shoulders of the reserves, most of whom are rookies, who will have to protect the base until their veteran comrades return to action.
But at least on Sunday, August 10, in a rematch against the physical, seasoned troops of the UST Growling Tigers, the La Salle freshmen stepped up to the plate, paving the way for last year’s Finals MVP, Jeron Teng, and Jason Perkins to deliver the final blows to put UST out for good.
“Big minutes from those coming off the bench. Not just offensively,” Sauler commended his boys.
Torres was gone in the first half, put away by a laceration on two of his fingers that required stitches. Then Kib Montalbo went down after getting hit on the calf, carried out of the playing area while agonizing in pain.
But fortunately for La Salle, who at that moment were staring at a four-point deficit, their reserves stepped up to the challenge.
“When Norbert got injured, we had to ask Yutien (Andrada) to come in. Julian (Sargent) played an all-around game – had to defend (Kevin) Ferrer, at the same time had a big shot in the corner. Robert (Bolick) was also there to defend. To give Almond (Vosotros) also minutes at the bench because of Kib’s injury,” Sauler said following the game.
Andrada finished with four points. It’s not much, but all were used to tie the game after UST opened a two-possession lead, threatening to run away with the contest. Green Archers rookie Abu Tratter also had only four markers, but all of which were also used to make a Growling Tigers edge disappear. (RELATED: DLSU's Perkins says UST coach uttered 'some unnecessary words')
“I’m confident with our rookies that anytime they’re given a chance, they’ll step up for our team,” mentioned Jeron Teng, who finished with 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists – another impressive performance to add to his collection of memorable games against the Growling Tigers in his young career.
“And it showed in this game – si Bolick, sila Abu, sila Julian Sargent – kahit may injuries – pero of course we want the mga injured to get back – pero we’re confident na kahit wala sila, yung mga iba, they can step up.”
(Of course, we want our injured players to get back, but we’re confident that if they’re not around, the others will be able to step up.)
Having a towering presence like Van Opstal in the block is something La Salle certainly misses. Utilizing Thomas Torres’ three-point shooting and ability to handle the ball are weapons they could certainly use when opponents turn up the press against them. Montalbo and Mustre are the remaining true point guards in the roster, and extended absence for both would surely hurt the club.
But probably not enough to put them down.
Not when Teng is currently on a tear, silently displaying a better all-around game that has him contending for the MVP award. Not when Perkins continues to exhibit a versatile game, one which can inflict damage in the paint and from the outside (he was 3-of-4 from downtown.)
Not when a rookie like Prince Rivero can put up 12 points and 8 rebounds in 20 minutes, which could have been more had he not busted his lip and was forced to sit. Not when a guy like Bolick can come in and provide five points in limited time, including a three-pointer that put his team up eight entering the fourth period. Not when a rookie like Sargent playing only the seventh game in his college career can help limit UST’s Ferrer to 3-of-11 shooting, and also put up nine quick points in the fourth period when his team needed it most.
Is La Salle invincible, just as their contemporaries thought in the preseason?
“Madami pa eh,” Teng answered, when asked if his team, 5-2, can improve on certain areas of their play. “Dahil syempre, it’s only the first half of the eliminations, and you know, kita naman sa results namin na we had two losses. It medyo shows na we have a lot of points we can improve on.”
(There’s still a lot we can improve on. Of course, it’s only the first half of the eliminations, and our results show we had two losses. It also shows we have a lot of points we can improve on.)
Coach Sauler sang the same song:
“All aspects – we can shoot better, we can lessen our turnovers, we can shut down our opponents. Little things – getting back on defense. We gave a lot of second chance points today to UST, we can limit those. Turnovers, turnover points given up. All the little things that will help us.”
No, La Salle isn’t invulnerable. Ateneo and FEU made sure to show that weeks ago. But if their rivals expect them to bow out just because of injuries to some guys, then they will be disappointed.
“I think they (the reserves) were just up to the challenge, and I’m sure they really wanted to show what they can contribute. It’s not really the streak; [it’s] the team growing, especially coming into the second round. And hopefully we can get healthier,” Coach Sauler said.
Right now, for La Salle, it’s about who’s the next man up.
And surprisingly, it may be just enough to get them through at the moment.