Final Four preview: The Green Rivalry opens a new chapter

MANILA, Philippines – La Salle will never have a bigger overall rival than Ateneo. The hatred and competition that spews from their feud goes beyond the four sides of a basketball court. When the Green Archers and Blue Eagles take on each other, it’s not just an ordinary game. It’s a social event. It’s a tradition unlike any other. It’s what makes it really special. It’s what makes it the best rivalry in Philippine sports. Though why that is, is a story for another time.

But if we’re talking about just from a basketball standpoint, the De La Salle Green Archers have had no bigger rivals over the past few years that the Far Eastern University Tamaraws, and vice versa. 2014 will mark the 11th time since the implementation of the UAAP Final Four format 20 years ago that both teams collide in a Final Four series, adding another chapter to the epic Green Rivalry of the UAAP. 

Their clashes began in late 90s and spewed over to the mid 2000s, which involved brawls, unforgettable battles, a lot of memories still available on YouTube, and a yearlong suspension. From 2010-2013, La Salle and FEU took on each other with Final Four implications on the line in three out of the four years. In each of the past two seasons, the Green Archers eliminated the Tamaraws.

There’s no love lost between both sides. Each time they go head to head, a dramatic ending is usually in store, with each squad coming away with the win over the other on almost an interchanging basis. In 2013, FEU was the challenge DLSU had to overcome in order to win their first UAAP men’s basketball crown in six years. In 2014, La Salle will look to repeat as champions for the first time since 2001, but to do that they’ll have to beat their rival in a similar situation to last season.

The Green Archers and Tamaraws are tied for the no. 2 spot at 10-4 in the league standings. Before their Final Four series officially kicks off, they will first have to face each other in a tiebreaker (or as the UAAP calls it, a playoff) on Sunday, September 21, with the winner taking the second spot (and twice-to-beat advantage) and the loser falling to no. 3. When their series opens, the winner of the playoff would then only have to win one more game, while the loser would have to prevail in each of the two remaining contests. Taking all aspects into consideration, what the Green Archers and Tamaraws have is a virtual best-of-three series, as the first to win twice will book a ticket to the finals.

Under the same stipulations last year, La Salle made quick work of FEU (both teams also had identical 10-4 records) by winning each of the first two games to earn the right of facing UST in the finals. Prior to the 2014 UAAP season, DLSU also eliminated FEU in the FilOil preseason tournament en route to the championship, and beat the Tamaraws in a tune-up game held between both teams sometime over the summer.

But on opening day of Season 77 on July 12, Far Eastern University turned the tables. Though the Green Archers erected a 23-10 lead after the first period, the Tamaraws slowly chipped away into the deficit before getting their first taste of the lead in the third quarter, 52-51. In the fourth period, Mike Tolomia exploded by hitting clutch jumper after another to the tune of 23 total points and to lead his team to a statement-making opening day win, 82-77.

Both sides met again on August 27 with the top seed of the league standings on the line. Once again, La Salle opened a double-digit lead and was ahead by nine, 35-26, at the half before squandering their advantage to the Tamaraws in the third period. FEU took a 69-61 lead with about three minutes to go, but the Green Archers went on a last hurrah to get within one, 71-70, with less than 10 seconds left.

However, an error in rebounding by the Green Archers allowed Tolomia to grab his own missed free throw and convert the game-sealing basket. The Tams went on to win 74-70 and spoiled Jeron Teng’s 28-point, 8-rebound, and 4-assist performance.

How they got here

DLSU:

For the defending champions, it was a rocky start to the season. After their four-point opening day loss to the Tamaraws, the Ateneo Blue Eagles crumpled the Green Archers the following Sunday, July 20, 97-86, sending DLSU to a 0-2 start.

But a bad record was not the only thing La Salle had to deal with over the first few weeks of Season 77. Against Ateneo, Thomas Torres fractured his foot and has yet to see action since. Injuries also kept rotation guys like Arnold Van Opstal and Norbert Torres out for a few games, while back-up point guards Kib Montalbo and Terrence Mustre also suffered through nagging physical issues.

But despite the injuries, DLSU racked up seven straight wins after their loss to Ateneo before having their streak snapped by the Tamaraws on August 27. Over their last four games, the Green Archers prevailed thrice with their lone loss coming against the red-hot UE Warriors, who have won six of their last seven games.

In six of their seven games in the second round, La Salle held a double-digit lead at a certain point – including going up 10 against UE with three minutes to go in the ball game. But only two wins for La Salle saw them come away with a double-digit margin – against UP and NU – showing that the reigning title-holders have a tenacity to squander large leads, especially when their offense turns stagnant.

The key ingredient for DLSU right now is health. Van Opstal and N. Torres look to be back in game shape, while Montalbo has shown no ill effects of his hurt calf. Even T. Torres was in uniform but did not play in his team’s season closer against NU, which could be a sign that he sees action in the Final Four round.

FEU:

Coming off a confidence-boosting win over DLSU, FEU ran into UST and Kevin Ferrer’s late-game 3-pointers which put the Tams at 1-1. After winning their next two games, the Tams lost to Ateneo thanks to Kiefer Ravena’s late-game heroics, which placed them in the middle of the pack at 3-2.

That was the last time FEU would lose for a while, as the Tams went on a seven-game winning streak of their own that propelled them to 10-2 and in great position to take the no. 1 seed. But even they ran into the red-hot Red Warriors, who exploded for 30 points in the fourth quarter against FEU in their second round matchup to come away with a 94-71 win. 

Not long after, the Tams battled the Blue Eagles for the top seed and played absolutely perfect basketball for three quarters. With six minutes to go in the game, Far Eastern University was ahead by 19, but let the Blue Eagles go on a run to the tie contest, send it into overtime, and steal the victory and top seed. Due to their forgettable fourth quarter – in which Tolomia missed two crucial free throws that could have sealed the win – the Tamaraws now have to claw their way to a twice-to-beat seed instead of automatically having one.

The question for FEU is how they come back from their heartbreaking downfall to the Blue Eagles. A veteran coach in Nash Racela and MVP-caliber players in Tolomia and Mac Belo leads them, so it will be safe to assume they’ll arrive on Sunday ready to take on La Salle without the ghosts of the Ateneo match still haunting. Moreover, the motivation to take down the team who eliminated them in each of the past two seasons is enough fuel to the fire.

What’s on the line:

For La Salle, it’s the first step to accomplishing something that hasn’t been done since Renren Ritualo was still donning the colors of the green and white. A championship would give DLSU its first back-to-back title in 13 years and pave the way for a potential dynasty – similar to 1998-2001, when the Green Archers collected four UAAP titles in succession. A title in Season 77 would also increase DLSU’s total number of official championships in the Final Four era (1994-present) to 7, which would be a record in the UAAP (they’re currently tied with Ateneo at 6 titles). But before they can accomplish that, they first have to rid themselves of the Tamaraws, who will not go down without a fight.

Another title for the Taft-based school would also further distance the team from the so-called “Dark Ages” of La Salle basketball that lasted from 2009-2012, in which the Green Archers missed out on the Final Four twice and didn’t win a single game in the Final Four round – both of which are huge detriments to a school that prides itself in the men’s basketball tourney. Also in each of those four seasons, Ateneo won the UAAP title each time and went a total 8-1 against DLSU, making matters worse.

The last time FEU students, alumni, and fans tasted a championship was way back in 2005, when, ironically, the Tamaraws beat the Archers in the finals. But since then, it’s been empty trips to the Final Four round for Far Eastern University. From 2008-2013, FEU missed the F4 round only once – in 2012, when DLSU beat them in a playoff for the no. 4 seed. During that span, the team made it to the finals in two occasions but came up empty as they lost to Ateneo twice.

Over the past few years, the Tams have built a reputation of starting off strong but faltering late, which was most evident in 2013 when they swept the first round to start 7-0, went 3-4 in the second round to finish 10-4, and didn’t win a single game in the Final Four. 

Beating La Salle would not only knock off the favorite of the tournament and the team that the Tamaraws matchup the worse against, but also send FEU to the finals for the first time in three years, which, in turn, would take the proverbial monkey of not being able to win when it counts off their backs. 

Keys to winning

Averages of both teams in their elimination round series (FEU 2-0)

Points: FEU 78 DLSU 73.5

Rebounds: FEU 38.5 DLSU 48.5

Assists: FEU: 14.5 DLSU 14.5

Turnovers: FEU 13 DLSU 17.5

Points in the paint: FEU 34 DLSU 29

Bench Points: FEU 33.5 DLSU 14

Feed the giants

DLSU’s win over NU was significant because not only did they avoid having to tackle UE in a do-or-die contest for the last Final For slot, but it also gave the Green Archers a chance to re-discover their mojo as they started to look a whole lot like last year’s defending champion during the win.

Over and over again La Salle fed their big men which resulted to great performances from the likes of Van Opstal, N. Torres, and Jason Perkins. Moreover, drawing defenders inside the paint resulted to open shots for Almond Vosotros, who shot effectively from the field to help his team gather the win, and scoring opportunities for other guys like Montalbo and Julian Sargent.

After Teng’s 32-point explosion against Ateneo that opened the second round helped lead his team to victory, DLSU started to rely more on their star’s ability to score for their offense in the following games. Teng is a great player, but La Salle’s main strength on offense is their guys inside. In order to retain their championship, they’re going to need Teng’s ability to isolate and score against defenders to be a safety net for when their plays break down, but not use it as their main source of attack.

FEU’s frontline defense is thin. Other than Anthony Hargrove, the club doesn’t have many options to contain DLSU’s hefty big men, which was why it was a surprise to see DLSU average just 29 points in the paint against the Tamaraws in the elimination round. Getting the ball in the paint will certainly have to be a focus on offense for Coach Juno Sauler’s team. And the quicker they can draw fouls on Hargrove, the better the chances of winning.

Take advantage of the boards

One thing the Green Archers did very well against the Tamaraws was rebound, as they totaled 97 in the eliminations. But those rebounds – especially on the offensive glass – must be used to convert points and not lead to more empty possessions. If La Salle manages to slow down the pace, it’s likely FEU will have a tough time converting points against their opponents’ tall frontline on the other end. A faster game with more up-and-down action suits better to the style of FEU, who averaged 7.9 fast break points per game while La Salle managed a league-low 6.8 in the elimination round.

Pass the ball

Another area DLSU must excel in is to share the wealth. Other than Teng’s 28 markers, only N. Torres scored in double-figures (13) during La Salle’s loss to FEU in the second round. In the same game, the Green Archers received just 10 bench points while FEU, second in the league at bench production (29.4 PPG), had 45. A similar script would almost guarantee defeat for the defending champions.

Consistency is key

Most importantly, La Salle needs to play a consistent 40 minutes. They haven’t done so the past two outings, and in both occasions they surrendered a double-digit lead before suffering losses. With their long-range shooting weapons, FEU can slice through any lead in a heartbeat, which is why in order to win DLSU must keep their foot on the gas pedal all the way.

Making Jumpers

Whether it’s off kick-outs from Tolomia or by result of quality ball-movement, the Tamaraws know they will get open looks against their adversaries. La Salle was second worst in the UAAP during the eliminations in perimeter points allowed by giving up 23.4 per game, while the Tams was fourth in the league in perimeter points scored at 25.9. A huge reason why that’s the case is because DLSU’s defensive schemes have most of their men stay in the paint to keep the rim protected at all costs – even if it means leaving an open man or two for a mid-range jumper. Consistent shooting all throughout the series should put FEU in great position to come away with the series win.

Force La Salle into a one-man show

In their second round duel against La Salle, FEU decided to live and die with Teng taking most of his team’s attempts and it worked to the Tamaraws’ favor. FEU’s defense isn’t capable of stopping La Salle’s interior scoring a third and fourth straight time, so they should try to bait one or two Green Archers to taking most of the team’s attempts rather than swinging the ball until they get a good shot in the paint.

The Press

UE pressed La Salle in both their elimination round games for the entire 40 minutes and it led to a combined 66 turnovers. NU didn’t do so and they found themselves down 18 in the fourth period last Saturday, September 13. The Tams will have to press and force their rivals to many miscues.

Take advantage of La Salle’s offensive drought

This usually happens early in the second quarter when Teng goes out of the game, but at least once or twice for a couple of minutes, DLSU’s offense turns stagnant as they fail to get points up on the scoreboard. It’s something that happens in nearly every La Salle game, and even if they get fouled, they don’t shoot their free throws at a high clip (68%). Once this takes place, the Tamaraws must make sure to take advantage and create any means of separation on the scoreboard.

Big Performances from Mike Tolomia and Mac Belo

FEU got great outings from both Tolomia and Belo in both contests against DLSU, and it led to victories. To beat the best – in this case, the defending champions – FEU must get top-tier production from their top stars once again.

Prediction: DLSU in 3 games. - Rappler.com