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The journey of every championship team is unique. Every team is special and have their own distinction that sets them apart from everyone else. With that said, what do we make of the UAAP Season 79 Men’s Basketball Champions, the De La Salle Green Archers?
What do make of a team that was heavily favored to win the title long before the season began? How do we judge a team that was primed for glory even before it stepped on the hardwood? How will history judge the Archers for cruising through the entire season and losing only once in 17 games?
The 2016 DLSU Green Archers will be remembered for a number of things. We will remember the big green machine, Ben Mbala, who was a walking highlight reel waiting to happen. We’ll think of Aljun Melecio, the gutsy rookie who never met a shot he didn’t like. We’ll be reminded about the mayhem – the core of the Archers’ strength and the reason why they were so deadly even more than their intimidating roster.
And there was the maestro behind the mayhem, Coach Aldin Ayo who orchestrated everything right from the start. Last but not least Finals MVP Jeron Teng. The graduating forward was clutch, saving his team from defeat countless time throughout the season.
Truly, the Archers will be remembered for their extremely talented lineup and how they ran through the entire league with ease. They were picked to win since the start of preseason and when the tournament eventually ended, the championship was more of affirmation more than anything else. Still, we have to ask: was it really easy winning the title?
On one hand, it obviously seemed that the team that had the likes of Mbala, Teng, Melecio, Abu Tratter, Julian Sargent, Prince Rivero, and the rest of the Archers, really had it easy claiming the championship. With a lineup like that, how could anything go wrong? They were even already comparisons to the old dynasty teams of the UAAP. Could they have beaten the 5-peat Ateneo teams? What about the 90’s UST teams? How would Arwind Santos and his FEU Tamaraws have faired against Teng?
More significantly, how does this particular incarnation of the Archers fare against the La Salle teams of old? La Salle fans were already thinking of forming a new dynasty similar to what Renren Ritualo accomplished.
Granted that they were a few close shaves throughout the elimination rounds, only the Ateneo Blue Eagles were fortunate enough to take them down this season. And after their loss, they vowed never to lose again. Not to anyone, and especially not to their arch rivals in the finals.
Furthermore, it wasn’t only that La Salle had assembled a team that’s loaded top to bottom, but it also happened to be a time in the UAAP when talent was scarce. Collegiate stars like Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, Kevin Ferrer, Mac Belo, and Mike Tolomia graduated already, leaving a void in the league. Nearly all of the seven schools were in rebuilding mode with new rosters and even new coaches. La Salle capitalized the change in the league’s scenery. They were the number one team right from the very beginning and no one was able to rival them.
Everything seemed pretty easy for these Archers.
And yet, despite of everything, La Salle’s journey to the UAAP title wasn’t particularly easy. Their road to victory was unique in the sense that what made them particularly special was not simply their talent, but how everyone in their roster bought into their system and worked together as one.
Oftentimes, the downside of collecting too many talented players is the concern of how they would gel as a unit. To some extent, the Archers did have to go through some adjustment period. Before their full-court pressure or their high-octane offense, they had to be on the same page. All of them. Before the mayhem, they had to be united.
For instance, La Salle’s rookies were blue-chip recruits. Aljun Melecio was a flat-out scorer and an MVP coming out of the Juniors Division. Fellow rookies Justine Baltazar and Ricci Rivero were stars in their respective high schools. All of their rookies had to be patient and pick their spots.
In terms of their veterans, guys like Prince Rivero and Jason Perkins had to sacrifice their game in order for Aldin Ayo’s system to work. All of La Salle’s big men had to work on their perimeter defense so that they could switch defensively on everybody.
Team captain Jeron Teng likewise had to adapt and buy in to the new system. It wasn’t that he was no longer the team’s go-to guy. His minutes weren’t limited and his shot attempts didn’t diminish. Teng’s game however, evolved through the course of the season. He learned how to share the floor with other high-caliber players like Mbala and Melecio. He developed his mid-range jumper into a consistent weapon. He became the unquestioned leader of the team. These Archers weren’t going to be as successful as they were without Jeron Teng.
Everyone on the Green Archers’ roster had to realize that although they were great individually, they were unstoppable together. In previous seasons, La Salle teams leaned on looking for mismatches, exposing opponents’ weaknesses. But with their brand new philosophy this year, everyone had to be connected on both ends of the floor.
La Salle was talented, but it took more than just skill and ability in order for them to win the championship.
And then there was the pressure – the unwavering and unforgiving weight to succeed. All season long, there was the incredible burden of La Salle to dominate, not just win, but to really dominate their opponents. Lopsided victories were always expected. In close wins, they were picked apart and persecuted for not performing better. The hype that they created seemed more like a curse than a blessing.
That lost to Ateneo in the second round? People commented that they were vulnerable. Their close Final Four encounter with the Adamson Falcons? They should have won that easily. Two close games in the finals? They should have blown the Eagles right out of the gate.
Throughout the tournament, Ayo and his team embraced the pressure. Instead of folding, they used the high expectations of fans, alumni, and media as motivation, a fuel to the fire. They wanted to prove to others, and most especially to themselves, that they are the best team in the league. They didn’t bow down to anybody else’s perceptions of them, but lived up to their own hype.
To simply say that “they should have won the title anyway” would be understating just how much everyone on that team worked and toiled for them to be single and unified squad.
In the end, we could remember the 2016 DLSU Green Archers as a team that had itself as its biggest competitor. Their championship journey was a season-long battle with themselves. Yes, they were a league of their own and a cut above the rest, but because of this, they had to check each other’s egos and personal goals. Individually, they had to sacrifice a lot for the good of all.
La Salle’s journey might not be your typical underdog story or they may not be a team that was the surprise of the tournament, but their own road to the title is as unique and as special as any other championship.
Season 79 was the year the De La Salle Green Archers ruled themselves, and the entire UAAP.
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