It is beyond the Xs and Os. It is not the secret codes to the Topex playbook. And not just the game plan.
For the 2023 De La Salle Green Archers, what made them win the championship was their character, on and off the court.
The road to the UAAP summit was not easy and certainly not pleasant. Tasked to end a dry spell that began in the Ben Mbala era, Coach Topex Robinson started playing several summer leagues to prepare for the season. At the pinnacle of the summer league were two crucial finishes, the Fil-Oil Eco-Oil Summer League and the PBA D-League.
Despite retaining the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup, La Salle lost to the UP Maroons behind rapid-shooting Mark Belmonte. However, the focal point became the Taft stars’ freedom under Coach Topex.
Coach Topex boldly declared that we would “live and die behind Nelle and KQ”. And that if he would run that game again, he would not be doing it any other way.
Coach Topex’s unequivocal commitment to “live and die behind Nelle and KQ” set the tone for their championship aspirations. Amid lofty expectations, a candid conversation with team booster Enrique Razon reiterated the goal: “Championship or bust.”
Those expectations hit a major snag after losing to tournament heavyweights UP, NU, and Ateneo.
In all of those three losses, Coach Topex was ballsy and boldly owned up to these mistakes.
From bad game plans to being outcoached, Coach Topex showed his solid character by not deflecting blame nor giving excuses. With their leader showing his worth, the players started to value and emulate him.
Motor Mike Phillips said after the Ateneo first-round loss, “What is important is that we gave it our all, played as a team, and had fun out there”.
“Ano daw? Have fun? Natalo na nga eh”, whispered one senior LaSalle writer in the press room.
Going into the last game of the eliminations, it was the same dilemma. It was as if the Archers have not learned. This was still the Green Archers who hoped they could flip the switch anytime and beat UE. Not being able to flip any switch in the first half, Ray Remogat and Precious Momowei led UE to a 37-48 lead.
Coach Topex refused to coach in the second half and left the green boys to his lieutenants.
La Salle opened the half with a 20-9 run and never looked back. La Salle ended the round on a winning note with an 83-75 pounding of the Red Warriors.
After that season-changing turn, these Topex Green Archers did flip the switch.
They went on a second rampage, sweeping all the teams going into the Final Four. From being in danger of being out of the post-season, La Salle finished second, riding on an eight-game winning streak.
The winning run was just not an ordinary winning run. The change did not come from the game plan. Coach did not change his rotation. He stuck with his guns and, just like the pre-season, we will live and die with this team.
That deep joy of hooping together was evident in every aspect of this rejuvenated La Salle team. They celebrated every point and cheered relentlessly after one excellent defensive play. The buying-in to the Topex philosophy was evident.
During press conferences, the sincerity of these young, transparent players is obvious. Whether they are just saying it or mean it, you can see it from how they say it to their facial expression.
This time, they mean it. They did buy in.
They embraced a philosophy and started living it.
No one cared who got more minutes as long as they did the job.
Team captain “Kuya” Ben Phillips, who saw his minutes dwindle, cheered from the bench relentlessly while rookie EJ Gollena became one of the more rabid cheerers on the bench.
On the court, it was pure unselfish play. La Salle led the league in assists behind patient playmaking, waiting for the best shot. The ball would move side-to-side to designated shooters Coach Topex instructed, “if you practiced it, shoot it.”
And when the biggest test came upon the Archers after the 30-point beatdown in Game One, the team responded.
“The job is easier when you have 16 pissed-off men,” Topex shared after Game Two. The Archers went into the grind and made a simple practice into a slugfest, just like how UP messed up La Salle. “The practice almost went out of hand,” said rookie Joshua David.
When they marched into Game Two, the resilience engraved in their character showed.
Trust is easy to say but almost impossible, especially for stars whose tendency to take over is part of their DNA.
In what could have been the last game of the season, the entire La Salle team trusted each other. They gave the green light to the graduating Francis Escandor, rookie Joshua David, and slumping CJ Austria to snipe from the distance to kill the Nelle-Quiambao mob defense.
Escandor destroyed the UP defense by draining three after three. And when the defense tried to adjust, David would punish them from long distance on the other side or go into his effective midrange game. And as if that was not enough, CJ Autria summoned his dormant triple threat skills and killed the Maroons’ defense.
To these Archers, it was no longer about just the game. It was about brotherhood. Joaqui Manuel got a tech for entering the court to make sure UP’s designated agitator Reylan Torres, keeps his distance from Nelle. “They know I have their backs.”
In the face of the rising pressure to win it all, Coach Topex continued to preach about enjoying the moment, cherishing and relishing.
The day before the final game, La Salle had a practice in Araneta. The atmosphere was great, and as one of the managers said: “You can feel that we will win tomorrow.”
La Salle started the game with graduating players with Manuel and Escandor, showing the world that things are higher than a basketball championship.
During the final game, even in the face of nine-point, UP leads in the 3rd, these men in green and white did not lose faith. Evan Nelle, who had a horrible 0-for-7 shooting night from long range, suddenly pulled up and banged home the pivotal trifecta to bring La Salle to just one point 66-67.
At the biggest of stages, the stars came to shine. It was time for the MVP to make sure that the crown will shuttle to Taft Avenue. After a three and a tear drop pushing the lead to 70-67, Quiambao was reduced to tears. The road to that championship is within sight. KQ sealed the win with two crucial free throws with a second to go.
The Archers jumped for joy, the green gallery went bonkers and everyone relished the moment. After a few moments of celebration, Coach Topex sat on the Araneta floor with a stoic smile, absorbing the moment. The gallery cheered, “Topex! Topex! Topex!”
As the celebration broke out in every nook of the world with green blood, from Araneta to North America, these Green Archers showed their true gem – their character.
Celebrating the presence of each other and being together, winning their first ring. Like family, they made sure to rib wingman Junel Policarpio for only showing up on Game Three, “Naku si Junel, sa Game Three lang nagpakita”.
And when each one was called for their interviews, they always mentioned the team, their journey and how unforgettable this will be. Just like how Coach Topex Robinson wanted them to.
Motor Mike Phillips made first mention of those who lined up for tickets as early as midnight just to be in the Big Dome to be one with their Green Archers. That they fed from the strength of the crowd to keep competing in a draining fight.
Evan Nelle, who for the past three seasons sat on the goal post at the final buzzer of every season that ended in tears, was moved by the mammoth and loud green crowd and shared that as one of the reasons why the Archers found their resolve to rally and win. “We cannot lose with a crowd like that”.
“It is surreal. I am so grateful to be a part of this. They are amazing”.
For Topex, he said Topex things. “I am blessed with the best assistants”, full of humility despite being installed as the new home town hero. He also never failed to credit the past great coaches that crafted this deep De La Salle history of basketball success. From Aldin Ayo, Franz Pumaren, Derek Pumaren, and Juno Sauler and those who donned the green and white.
The rest of the Archers later raided the press room during the postgame presscon, drenched their coach, KQ, and Nelle with water, and dragged the three out to return to Taft while some students were camping there waiting for their heroes to arrive.
Because to them, the students, the alumni, and fans are all part of the team.
Unselfishness, valuing every individual, and being one big La Salle family are what they have learned and embraced during our first year with Coach Topex.
They transformed into a team we all wanted to cheer for. With that nasty seven-year drought plus being behind a team that loves their Archers fans in the stands, the La Salle gallery was tough to outcheer despite UP’s constant cheer-jacking.
And it started with a coach who believes that success is only meaningful when embraced by everyone.
ANIMO LA SALLE!!!