MANILA, Philippines - Despite being undersized at 5-foot-10 and slower than most shooting guards in college basketball, there's a reason why Almond Vosotros starts and plays heavy minutes for the UAAP defending champion De La Salle Green Archers.
A gunner at heart who’s one of the team's main sources for scoring, Vosotros has the ability to hit shots from the outside and run the offense for the Green Archers, which has needed him to do a lot more of the latter in Season 77 with key injuries to the point guard rotation plaguing the team.
While he's done an impressive job of setting up plays to help lead DLSU to a 9-3 record, nearly assured of a Final Four berth, and in the hunt for a twice-to-beat seed, Vosotros is currently going through a slump in which he has made only one out of his last 16 attempts from 3-point range over the past three games, some of which have been wide open.
Overall from the field, the stats show that Vosotros has chucked and missed a lot of shots all over the floor as well: 3-of-13, 4-of-13, 2-of-13.
For the season, Vosotros is currently shooting the 3-ball at a 26% clip, a career-low figure. Overall from the field, he's making just 33% of his attempts, which is also the lowest rate in his tenure with De La Salle University. Even his free throw shooting, which he used to make at 83% just two years ago, is down to 61%.
With the injuries to Thomas Torres (who's still out of the lineup after fracturing his foot) and Kib Montalbo (hindered by an unhealthy calf), Vosotros has been forced to settle down the turnover-prone Green Archers (17.5 TOPG), in addition to leading the team in minutes played (31.8 MPG).
But regardless of his shooting slump, DLSU head coach Juno Sauler wants to see Vosotros continue shooting the ball.
"We keep telling him to shoot every time he's open," the second-year head coach said following his team's 67-60 win over the UST Growling Tigers on Saturday, September 6.
"So hopefully he makes the shot. Because whether he shoots or not, teams will still be there to defend him. If he's open, that's Vosotros for you," he added about his starting shooting guard, who's converted his share of clutch baskets over his career, including this one that help start La Salle's sweep of the men's basketball second round in Season 76 en route to the championship:
Sauler's instruction was loud and clear.
"He has to take those shots."
Bad Offense, Good Defense
With their tough grind-it-out win over the desperate, facing-elimination Growling Tigers in which they trailed following each of the game's first three quarters, the Green Archers improve to 9-3 in the season, half a game behind second-place Ateneo (10-3), and a game behind first-place FEU (10-2).
La Salle and University of Sto. Tomas are no strangers to each other. Both teams collided in an epic three-game series in last year's UAAP finals where the former bounced back from losing game one and won the championship.
DLSU's win on Saturday marked their fourth straight victory over UST and fifth in their last six meetings. La Salle also swept their season series against the Growling Tigers for the first time since 2010, when Vosotros was a scarcely-used rookie and Jeron Teng was still playing high school basketball for Xavier.
"UST played very well [on] both ends of the floor. They made it really hard for us," Sauler said about the Growling Tigers, who got career games from Ed Daquioag (19 points) and Kent Lao (14 points), both of whom made up for the absence of Louie Vigil (suspended) and Kevin Ferrer (injured - hand).
But despite the offensive outbursts of the aforementioned players, La Salle's defense did a successful job of containing UST's two best players, who combined to go 5-of-27 from the floor for a total of 19 points.
"We wanted to focus on their scorers, like [Karim] Abdul and [Aljon] Mariano, but they gave us problems with their outside shooting. We were able to pull this off because of our defense."
"Our bigs held their own against Abdul, who shot 2-of-12. And then Aljon, 3-of-15. Not only Arnold [Van Opstal], Norbert [Torres], and Abu [Tratter], but also Jason [Perkins], and at times Jeron [Teng], against Mariano.
Outside of Teng, who finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists in another MVP-caliber performance, the rest of La Salle struggled along with Vosotros, finishing four percent below their season average with a 36% shooting clip from the floor.
Coming off a 1-of-17 showing from three-point range against Adamson on Sunday, August 31, DLSU had another mediocre 2-of-14 performance from long distance, nearly half of which were attempted by the misfiring starting two-guard (0-of-5).
In Season 77, the Green Archers' 66% average from the charity stripe ranks third best in the UAAP next to Ateneo (72%) and Adamson (67%). But against the Growling Tigers, they made only 22 of their 39 attempts from the free throw line, which Coach Sauler was not pleased about.
"That's below our average. I'm sure we could do better. Even from the three-point area, I'm sure we could do better."
While their offensive performance was unsettling, DLSU did get passing marks from their head coach on the other side of the floor, where they limited UST, now 5-7, to just 31% shooting and forced 17 turnovers.
"What pulled us through this game is how we defended," said Sauler, who's constantly preached defensive philosophies to his team since taking over head coaching duties in 2013.
"More than what Arnold (11 points, 7 rebounds) contributed on offense, what was important was rotating Norbert, Arnold, and Abu against Abdul. To me, that was more important than what he contributed offensively."
The (Dangerous) Calm Before the (Final Four) Storm
The race to the Final Four is hitting its stretch run, and La Salle is in the hunt for a twice-to-beat berth, though has a tough schedule remaining against teams like the UE Red Warriors and NU Bulldogs.
On Wednesday, September 11, DLSU goes head-to-head against UE, whom they defeated 60-58, in a double-digit fourth quarter comeback victory last July 27. Despite the win, La Salle flirted with danger all throughout the contest, finishing with 36 turnovers against Red Warriors head coach Derrick Pumaren's patented full-court press defense.
The game is crucial, as a victory would put La Salle, who is a combined 1-3 against FEU and Ateneo in Season 77, in good position to stay in better contention for one of the twice-to-beat seeds in the playoffs. A loss would derail their chances, even putting them at risk of potentially falling in to the fourth spot with National University (7-4) not far behind.
UE, 6-5, on the other hand, is a game away from essentially getting eliminated from the Final Four race. They have a critical matchup against FEU on Sunday, September 7, in which a loss could take them out for good.
Sauler is not questioning what kind of mentality University of the East will have entering Wednesday's contest, believing they will be ready to fight regardless of staying alive after they're through with the Tamaraws or not.
"Whether or not they need to win, it's always going to be tough playing against UE. They're long, they're quick. You know they'll put pressure 40 minutes. I think we set a record in the first round in terms of turnovers against them. So we'll try to take care of the ball a little bit more."
"We have a hard time especially with [Moustapha[ Arafat being there, very long, very quick. So it's something that we coaches need to prepare for and come up with a better game plan come Wednesday."
Another mantra Sauler has instilled ever since taking over the Green Archers is to make sure the team is not concerned about where they stand in the win-loss column, hoping to promote a mentality where the team instead aims to get better every day.
DLSU is 23-8 since he has taken over the team, making it safe to assume they'll stick by his principles as they head towards their perilous game against UE.
"We just wanna play well on Wednesday. We have two games left. Just make the most of those two opportunities, and whatever happens is something that we have to accept."
"Just have to make the most out of those opportunities given to us."