MANILA, Philippines – During those forgettable first 20 minutes in Sunday’s marquee game, it felt as if the season had come crashing down on De La Salle.
While the other side of the Mall of Asia Arena - the one covered in blue - was celebrating, high-fiving, and enjoying every second of what was transpiring, the other side - the one shadowed in green - was still and silent.
The Blue Eagles were playing exquisite basketball. The ball was moving beautifully. Kiefer Ravena looked like a PBA player against college boys. Chibueze Ikeh was in total control of the point. Bo Perasol was outcoaching Juno Sauler.
On the other side? The only thing that seemed consistent with the Green Archers was the sound of “clank” as shot attempts bricked off the rim. Their defense was subpar. Their body language didn’t look good. Easy rebounds were missed.
What was supposed to be a promising season for the boys from Taft entering UAAP Season 78 looked like it was about to go down the drain.
And then, out of nowhere, they managed to flip the switch, and just in the nick of time.
“I think what got us back into the game was our defense, and our losses came because we didn’t really play very good defense. It’s something that we’re trying to improve on and they showed that they could play on that end in the second half,” Sauler said after the game.
He’s right, but it was more than that.
Josh Torralba and Thomas Torres opened the third quarter hitting huge 3-pointers. Suddenly, the lead was down to 4. Then Prince Rivero did Prince Rivero things. Jeron Teng was finding Jason Perkins for open shots, and he finally came to life. Down 4. Down two. Up one. Up 4. Just like that, chants of “Go La Salle” drowned the cheers of “One Big Fight.”
“[It was a] hard fought game between both teams,” said Sauler.
DLSU eventually won as both Torralba and Teng came up clutch in various ways, while Ateneo, who had 15 assists on 16 field goals in the first half, became Kiefer-centric in the final two quarters. The King Eagle finished with 19 points on 24 shot attempts, a disappointing fourth quarter punctuated by missed jumpers and a clanked game winner that every single person in the MOA Arena knew he was going to take.
Teng finished with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. He was big time down the stretch once again, barrelling his way to the rim for needed layups and, when his team most needed it, hit the free throws to seal La Salle’s victory.
But what he did most impressively was on the other side of the floor.
“I just told Jeron, Kiefer will find a way to make shots, whether it be 3 points or getting to the basket or pull up. But just find a way to just keep challenging and make it tough for Kiefer to get those shots in. Jeron was able to sustain it even until the very end,” Sauler said.
“Well, it was tough because, yeah, I knew na it would end up kay Kiefer yung play and, yun, I just really had to defend him for us,” the King Archer said about that last possession, which sent thousands of spectators in green going home ecstatic while leaving those in blue saying, “not again,” after how they blew a 16-point lead against UST.
That defensive effort by Teng, his big-time play down the stretch of games, the way Perkins stepped up, how Torres had arguably his best ever collegiate game - all of those more than just helped La Salle win a game against their arch-rival.
The way they lost to FEU and UST, both in lopsided fashion, resonated with the team, its fans, and alumni. Both defeats had glaring warnings: when the Tigers and Tamaraws went ahead big, it was like the Green Archers just succumbed to their opponents, looking helpless. Where was the fight? Where was the Animo spirit?
So when the Blue Eagles went ahead by 15 in the first half, it brought the feeling of disastrous deja vu. Would the team just trail the rest of the way again like they did against other contenders? Was it time to consider the game over?
La Salle answered that question in the second half: no.
And after that, they finally showed their character.
“I remember many possessions Kiefer had the ball with him in the last two minutes, but I saw Jeron just hustling on every play and challenging every shot that Kiefer would be taking,” Sauler said about his team captain.
“Prince played big also with his double-double, had to defend the bigs, had to rebound against bigger guys, but that’s what Prince gives us - hustle and effort and heart,” he said about his sophomore UAAP star in the making.
“Defensively, man, especially Thomas. Thomas and Jeron, they really made a great example, coming off the second half strong on defense. It bled out towards the whole team. Not just the people on the court but on the bench too, screaming out our names, saying the little things. It was a team effort,” said Torralba.
“We’ve been trying to look for that. That right click throughout the first round, and as you can see, we’re sharing the ball, having fun. It’s a beauty to watch, and it’s also fun to play. We haven’t felt like this for a while.”
Torralba, who’s had a tiring journey getting to the position he’s in now, gives La Salle reason to be very optimistic entering the second round, and for the future. His non-stop energy rubs off on teammates. His defense pesters opponents to frustration - just ask Von Pessumal. And when you leave him open from deep, it’s more likely that not the shot will go in.
Ateneo made that mistake during the game’s most critical juncture, giving the rookie Green Archer an unforgettable “welcome to La Salle” in his first game against their biggest rivals.
“It was a big shot. I was a little frustrated during the game. I shot pretty bad. Good thing I made that big shot. We really needed it,” said Torralba, who’s waited years for a moment like the one he created from the left corner on Sunday.
After one Philippine NCAA season in 2011, Torralba left the country for a chance at Division I basketball in the United States with University of Texas-Pan America. But after the team changed coaches, he was told he would no longer be part of their plans. So, he returned to the Philippines and did his residency to suit up for La Salle. But just as this season was about to start, he injured his wrist, forcing him to sit out 3 more weeks.
But, hey, he was already out of action and patient for 4 years anyway - what was a few extra games?
“It’s going to be like, wow, man. God’s really been working,” the 22-year-old said about how he will remember the game-winning 3 years from now. “I’ve been through so much… damn, like, it’s really confirmation that God has me where he wants me to be. Of course, his plans are higher than our plans. So it’s like, wow, Josh, you have a purpose here.”
Torralba is one of the reasons why there was so much excitement entering this season for La Salle, even with the departures of Norbert Torres, Almond Vosotros, and Arnold Van Opstal; and the ineligibility of Ben Mbala.
His talent is clear, and that’s the same with many other guys in the roster, from Teng to Torres to Rivero to Perkins, and to Tratter. The other rookies? Well, Andrei Caracut is currently the leader to win Rookie of the Year, while Larry Muyang and Lorenzo Navarro have shown glimpses of being good players.
But for some reason, it was just not clicking early on - in the season and against Ateneo. Maybe it was the inexperience, lack of chemistry, or the absence of a leader on the floor - 3 problems apparent in their losses to UST and FEU, and even against UP.
But on Sunday, when the stakes were at their highest, especially in the second half, the team many expected to see out of these Green Archers finally showed up, and they announced themselves with authority.
They were playing unselfishly. There was confidence in their execution. The fight in La Salle was back.
“It was very important, because in UAAP in the Philippines, each game is very crucial, very important. So especially this game ending the first round, we wanted to finish strong,” said Jason Perkins, who finally scored in double-digits again with 13 points, and was back to the old Perk: confident with swagger, screaming out his emotions, and waking up the crowd.
“It’s really big, especially going in the second round. We have confidence right now. It’s high morale, especially we might go against FEU first game, so if you want high confidence against any team, I’m sure it will be FEU.”
The last time La Salle faced FEU, they let their opponents go on a 20-0 run, and the game was decided there. They looked overmatched. Heck, in some instances, it even looked like they knew they couldn’t beat those guys.
A loss to Ateneo would have dropped La Salle to a 3-4 record, which wouldn’t have eliminated any chance of making the Final Four. But with 3 of those defeats coming against their rivals, mostly in blowout fashion, it gives reason to think that would have hit their confidence to a point where the Green Archers would be put in a position to underachieve entering the second round.
Would they have still made the Final Four? Probably. But advance to the finals? Probably not. And when you put on that green and white jersey, the expectations are always championship-or-bust.
Their performance in the second half against Ateneo gave their season a needed jolt that could prove very beneficial down the line.
“We’ll still take it one game at a time. We’re not looking at it as the start of the second round, the end of the first round. It’s just a game that we had to get over with and just be ready with whoever we’re facing in the next game,” Sauler said.
“Of course it’s obvious: it’s a big, big confidence booster. But then again, we got to be careful with it because we don’t want to get cocky or too much self-esteem,” said Torralba, who later added: “Of course, you want to clinch at least one of the spots in the Final Four, but of course it’s not over. It’s not set and done.”
The two are right to be cautious. Beating Ateneo, which has quite a few issues of their own, doesn’t put La Salle in the UAAP’s highest echelon just yet - not when UST and FEU have looked so dominant.
However, they are getting better. The Green Archers have won 3 of their last 4 games. The team is starting to come together. Guys are getting their rhythm back. And most importantly, they finally showed character, just when they needed it most.
Here come these Green Archers. – Rappler.com