ARE WE APPROACHING OUR DESTINATION?
The perennial question that arises after summer league triumphs and a three-year rebuilding phase. Following a lackluster performance in the first round, it seemed that the 2023 Green Archers were far from achieving their goals. Squandering substantial leads, puzzling defensive lapses, and an unwavering desire to play the hero ball were some of the issues plaguing the team. However, two consecutive victories against league powerhouses now prompt us to ask once more: Are we approaching our destination?
After a clinical 88-78 dismantling of National U, the league-leading UP was up next. In the initial encounter, La Salle had suffered a 64-67 loss after a harrowing third quarter that saw them go without a field goal for 14 minutes. But this time, something felt different. The Green Archers’ game was evidently on the upswing, and they seemed prepared to take on the previously 8-1 Fighting Maroons.
In a classic battle of scoring runs, La Salle controlled the majority of the game, even holding a 14-point lead in the third quarter. However, the Diliman team wouldn’t go down. UP fought back, narrowing the lead, and La Salle consistently responded to keep the Maroons at bay. The third quarter ended with a score of 66-59, setting the stage for a thrilling final quarter.
UP’s CJ Cansino and the second-string big man, Chicco Briones, suddenly caught fire, taking the lead 74-75 with 4:45 left on the clock. With the momentum shifting in favor of Diliman, La Salle was once again facing the prospect of losing a substantial lead during crunch time.
But this time, they didn’t falter. Not today.
The Green Archers continued to trust in a system that had delivered four consecutive victories, moving the ball purposefully. MVP frontrunner Kevin Quiambao and rookie sensation Junel Policarpio combined for a decisive 10-2 run, extending the lead to 84-77 with just two minutes remaining.
The run began with Quiambao faking a ball screen, driving forcefully to the hoop against UP’s stare-down artist, Briones, to regain the lead. After Policarpio recovered his own missed free throw, Quiambao drove baseline against the flopping Lebron Lopez,, and had a wide-open shot to put La Salle up 80-77 with only two minutes left.
But the Taft duo was just beginning. Off a miss by JC Macalalag, Policarpio snatched the offensive board and dished to a cutting KQ for two to extend the lead 82-77.
At this point, La Salle maintained their lead, making the right defensive stops and converting free throws.
So, after this league-shaking victory, the question lingers: Are we approaching our destination?
It’s hard to say. UP played without their key players, Malik Diouf and JD Cagulangan. Diouf, a double-double machine with 14.71 rebounds and 13.29 points per game in the first round, could have significantly altered La Salle’s game plan by defending the interior. Without Diouf, UP Coach Goldwyn Monteverde had to go deep into his big men rotation with Briones, Seven Gagate, and Luis Pablo, but the results were disappointing.
What went right, though, was the Green Archers’ leaders embracing Coach Topex Robinson’s system. This system prioritizes ball and player movements to create the best scoring opportunities. The team left behind the days of isolation basketball, and even in difficult situations, with the ball moving purposefully to find the right player in the right matchup.
Rookie Junel Policarpio found his role as a versatile big wing, and with his length, capable of exploiting the Maroons’ perimeter defense. When guarded by smaller defenders like Harold Alarcon or Gerry Abadiano, Policarpio either attacked the rim or pulled up from beyond the arc. His contribution of 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists proved vital to La Salle’s rise.
Policarpio’s emergence has been a major factor in La Salle’s resurgence.
Another noteworthy aspect was La Salle’s defense effectively limiting UP’s offensive options, resulting in only 10 assists for the Maroons. Most of UP’s points came from individual brilliance, with players like Janjan Felicilda, CJ Cansino, and Alarcon stepping up. Even highly-touted Lebron Lopez could only manage one field goal throughout the game, a testament to La Salle’s well-designed quick-switching defense.
WE ARE FINALLY MAKING STRIDES
Over the past five games, La Salle has been playing championship-caliber basketball. Starting with dominant victories over UE, UST, NU, and culminating in a win against the title favorites, UP, the Green Archers are showcasing the potential they were envisioned to have as a preseason dark horse. If La Salle continues to develop at this pace, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be considered strong contenders for the championship come late November. The journey begins with the upcoming game against Adamson.
ANIMO LA SALLE!