Despite missing the Final Four in the last two seasons, hope springs eternal within the DLSU Green Archers.
Of course, La Salle has been relentless in recruiting talent during the offseason, but translating those into hits on the court have largely been misses, especially as their archrivals, the Ateneo Blue Eagles, have basically lorded over the competition over the last five years.
Two straight victories to open UAAP Season 84 can certainly add fuel to the optimistic fire, but in the grander scheme of things, those wins have come with questions rather than definitive answers.
Both Green Archer wins have been tightly-contested games that were too close for comfort and their most recent win, which came against the rebuilding NU Bulldogs, almost slipped out of their hands.
In what was initially a game of runs, a 16-6 DLSU run to close the first quarter offset NU’s strong start. However, the Bulldogs went on a 15-0 run in between halves to take a 30-29 halftime lead that extended to 37-29 with 7:25 left in the third quarter. The Green Archers then went on an 8-0 run to tie the game, and in the end, Justine Baltazar and the debuting Mark Nonoy made crucial baskets to help La Salle slip past NU with a 59-55 win.
Sloppy play on both ends of the floor from DLSU closed the talent gap between them and the Bulldogs. Failing to close out shooters and making some mistimed gambles on the defensive end gave NU some open shots, while errant La Salle passes gave the Bulldogs more chances to score. For a team coached by Derrick Pumaren, it was quite uncharacteristic to see them struggle in crossing the halfcourt.
DLSU consistently outrebounded its opponents in previous seasons, but in two games, they have failed to establish control on the boards and it has prevented the Green Archers from creating much-needed separation. La Salle barely outrebounded the UE Red Warriors in the opener, 43-42, and they survived being out-hustled on the boards by NU, 48-44.
All of that taken together determines how the Green Archers will execute down the stretch. As the stakes get higher and the feel of the game changes, composure and discipline will determine wins and losses. These issues could spell deeper trouble for DLSU, especially when they take on the Blue Eagles and the FEU Tamaraws, teams that will likely pounce on their errors.
Injuries have been a factor as losing Joshua David to an ACL tear and a not-100-percent Mark Nonoy due to a nagging hamstring injury have put a dent to their buildup and early season plans. David may be viewed as a backcourt player, but his effort belies his height. Meanwhile, Nonoy’s true potential on the team will depend on his health moving forward, but his debut certainly brought some much-needed energy to the team. The former UST Growling Tiger was a disruptor on defense and his third 3-pointer dashed NU’s hopes, yet hamstring injuries can be tricky.
Establishing consistency has also been hard given their revolving door of coaches in the last decade. Since 2012, the Green Archers have cycled through six or seven coaches, depending on whether one considers Jermaine Byrd a “consultant” or more of a co-head coach. The changing personalities and the varying philosophies made it hard for players development-wise and the hope is that Pumaren will be given enough time to reestablish a consistent winning culture within DLSU.
Amidst the circumstances, there are some positives to build on.
Against NU, La Salle’s second unit was much more effective in making stops and generating solid offense. Sure, Issa Gaye got injured early in the third quarter, but DLSU’s bench kept them in the game with 18 points at halftime, outscoring both the La Salle starters (11 points) and the NU bench (four points).
Baltazar not only operates better without an import on the court but pairing him up with Michael Phillips provided some more athleticism and energy that make for a more disruptive frontcourt. Kurt Lojera’s timely offense and his veteran smarts, as evidenced in part by his zero turnovers, also helped provide stability to the group.
On the other hand, NU’s turnovers were like blood in the water for DLSU, but converting them into scoring opportunities was another matter. Forcing errors is an area the Green Archers continue to thrive with and when you have players like Nonoy and Deschon Winston who can push the tempo, it should bring up more scoring opportunities.
At the end of the day, the DLSU Green Archers can’t play to the level of their competition if they want to make the Final Four. Talent can help La Salle win some games, but that alone won’t cut it when the schedule is compressed and every game has far-reaching implications. Wins are wins right now, but it won’t matter if the Green Archers can’t get the more crucial victories later on.