by Neal Tieng
After 11 games, the Green Archers find themselves in a familiar situation – that late season scramble for the Final Four.
With three remaining games left and a 7-4 card, the Green Archers still have not secured an outright seat in the Final Four just yet. Although the team has at least 2-game lead on the closest pursuers Adamson and FEU, and NU, out of all the teams who still figure to be in the running for the playoffs, La Salle has a relatively tougher schedule having to face FEU, Adamson and NU while NU has the easier one with also-runs UE and UST on their plate.
The unsettling feeling is not something unusual for a Green Archers fan who has been through this dark era, so unlike the earlier years of UAAP hardcourt domination when the Final Four was always a given. It has been so long that the feeling of being in the championship is like ancient history.
What lies ahead for the playoff wannabes?
La Salle now holds solo third and is only two games ahead of Adamson (5-6) and FEU (5-6) and will still be facing these two squads in the second round. FEU and Adamson would still face undefeated Ateneo but would have an easier final playing day.
This makes every game from this point on, a must win.
The Green Archers will face the inconsistent FEU Tamaraws at 10:30am tomorrow with so much at stake for both squads. A win would inch us closer to the elusive Final Four slot, and a loss would drag us to a virtual dogfight for the final two slots.
The Taft squad routed their Morayta counterparts in round one 75-65 last March 31, 2022 by clamping down on the quick and highly touted FEU combo guards RJ Abarientos and LJ Gonzales. Justin Baltazar bamboozled the Tamaraws with his 20 points 11 rebounds in a game that doubled as the coming out party of Michael Phillips as he held FEU import Emman Ojoula to just two points in the second half.
2022 has been underwhelming for the Tamaraws, who have underperformed despite having Gilas stars and a ton of holdovers plus an agile and athletic import; they lost to the league’s bottom-feeders.
Keys to the Game
Continue to shut down Ojula – in the first half of the first-round match-up, Eman Ojula of FEU had his way with the DLSU frontline. Using brute strength to get prime inside position, Ojula exploded for 11 points in the first half alone prompting La Salle coach Derrick Pumaren to dedicate a substantial part of this half time huddle in stopping FEU’s foreign student athlete. Aside from his smart shot selection that resulted in 43% from the field, he is also the Tamaraws’ leading rebounder with 12.08 boards per game and 6.18 of them from the offensive end.
Control the boards – La Salle has made rebounding the linchpin of this season behind the relentless efforts of Michael “Motor Mike” Phillips, Justin Baltazar and Bright Nwankwo, but FEU is no rebounding lightweight. In fact, FEU ranks second in rebounding with 46.6 per game compared to La Salle’s 46.2 boards per outing.
Perimeter defense – In our last meeting, FEU’s LJ Gonzales took over the scoring load from the shackled RJ Abarientos and torched the La Salle perimeter defense with an array of long bombs and floaters. Whenever the defense goes under the screen, Gonzales made them pay. La Salle currently ranks last in 3-point field goal percentage allowed when opponents shot 29.52% on us over the last 11 games. Early close-outs and quick switches may help the La Salle stifle FEU snipers.
Beware of the bad surprises – FEU is a team that has depth and with a pocketful of surprises. Hopefully, the Green Archers defense would not take any Tamaraw on the floor for granted and give them an opportunity to score at our expense.
Offense – The trigger of the signature La Salle defense is the offense. Once La Salle scores, it will allow the defense to set. If the Archers miss, the guards of the opponents can trigger their own fastbreak. The Green Archers’ Achilles heel for the season has been finding a consistent offensive flow. We have had significantly less wide-open spot-up shooting opportunities than the league leaders, and it is no coincidence that our leading scorers are also great shot creators. Justin Baltazar, Kurt Lojera and Schonny Winston are superb dribble-drive slashers that have kept us afloat many times. Five-minute scoreless droughts, such as the one against UP, would be tragic for La Salle as coming back from double-digit deficits will not be easy against a steady FEU five.
Can we still make it?
The first part of that question will be answered at 10:30am tomorrow
ANIMO LA SALLE!