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Better defense, teamwork keys for FEU in second round

By Anthony Divinagracia Posted Aug 11th 2013

Looking forward to the second round, Nash Racela and his coaching staff just hope that the Tamaraws will stay healthy and consistent for the tougher grind ahead.

RR Garcia looked in trouble near the baseline.

With 2:45 left in the fourth quarter and Far Eastern University (FEU) nursing just a 66-63 lead, Adamson University threw a double-team on Garcia off the inbound.

Garcia nearly fumbled but managed to escape that defensive ruse. Given a partial crack at the rack, the former UAAP MVP may have elected a jumper or challenge Adamson’s interior defense by attacking the lane.

But Garcia chose to pass. The receiver? A wide-open Terrence Romeo who returned the favour by gladly knocking in a dagger triple from the right elbow that pushed the Tamaraws further ahead, 69-63, with 2:39 left.

Early in the contest, it was Romeo who made crisp, on-cue dishes to Mike Tolomia, Roger Pogoy, Mark Bello and several others in transition.

This fluidity in offense – never before seen during the Garcia-Romeo era – has put FEU to where it is now: unexpectedly on top with an immaculate 7-0 record.

“No more selfishness. Just pure hardwork and discipline. That’s our story in the first round,” said FEU assistant coach Eric Gonzales, talking on behalf of chief tactician Nash Racela who was busy with the Gilas Pilipinas national team in the Fiba Asia Championship as of this interview.

“That 7-0 record really gave us a lot of confidence.  We’ve been through a lot of adjustments. Good thing (the) players are responded well to coach Nash. They are very obedient and cooperative.”

Just how well these Tamaraws respond to Racela’s system nowadays?

Mid-season numbers provide half of the answer.

FEU is currently on top in nine departments with six coming from various scoring aspects, including a league-high 80.6 points per game. That marquee offensive clip is predicated on 3-point field goals (32.1 percent), freethrows (77 percent), perimeter shooting (39.3 percent), bench scoring (29.4 percent), fastbreaks (11.6 percent ), and turnover points (16.1 percent).

At the helm of that is no less than the combo-guard “tandem” (you heard it right) of Romeo and Garcia. The 2010 Rookie of the Year led the team in scoring with a stunning average of 22.6 points a contest. The graduating Garcia is second with 14.3 points on average, followed by another guard Mike Tolomia who normed 10 points an outing. Vastly improved sophomore Mark Belo and Roger Pogoy complete FEU’s scoring five with 8.1 and 6.4 points, respectively.

Undeniably, Romeo is the league’s first-round MVP, topping the statistical race with totals of 158 points, 44 rebounds, 28 assists, and 10 blocks in seven games.


Other strengths

Yet more than its scoring, the Tamaraws have significantly turned heads with their teamwork hinged on a mid-season best 16.3 assists per game. Surprisingly, it was the erstwhile ball-hogging Romeo who led FEU’s feeding party with 4.1 dimes a game. Tolomia and Garcia share the distribution job with 4.0 and 3.1 assists a contest.

“Si Terrence at si RR dati ‘di sila mapag-combine. Tingin sa kanila dati nagsasapawan. But now, they have totally embraced the concept of team play. Ganun din yung iba. They are setting aside personal glory for the good of the team,” Gonzales said.

For the record, the Tamaraws’ 1-2 punch are among the Top 10 assist leaders of the season with Romeo at no.3 and Garcia at no.10.

Rebounding-wise, FEU sits at no.4 with 44.9 caroms a game despite its thin frontline. But just like in the assists category, the Tamaraws have also surprisingly topped the league in blocks, tallying 5.6 rejections an outing to underscore its impressive “donut” defense.

“Admittedly, we are weak in the middle but the good thing is our big men are doing their best to address that with their help defense. They’re covering each other’s back once someone tries to post or penetrate. The perimeter (defense) is also holding up with the willingness of our guards to hustle and deny the lanes,” Gonzales noted.

Logging in more playing time on some of its bigs has reaped dividends for FEU’s inside game. Belo had the most increase in minutes with 21.3 from his previous 11.8 last season. Carl Brian Cruz now plays an average of 19.7 minutes from last year’s 9.7. Even 6-foot-10 Cameroonian import Christian Sentcheu’s minutes spiked from last season’s 5.4 to 12.4 as of the moment.

“We want to give them the confidence they need to contribute to the team’s cause. Exposing them to game situations more often will help them understand the system better,” Gonzales said.


New coach, new culture

Prior to the season, Racela batted for a “culture change” among the Tamaraws. Yet FEU’s new mentor, though a veteran of many cage wars as assist coach in the pros, knew his brand of transformation won’t come overnight.

It came in seven play days.

Against University of the East (UE) and De La Salle University, the Tamaraws showed its grit for comebacks. Of these come-from-behind wins, the sweetest would be against La Salle, which the Tamaraws ambushed in overtime after erasing the Archers’ 13-point lead in the last 2:36 of the payoff period.

“It says a lot about the character of this team. It was a total team effort,” FEU coach Nash Racela said after his wards defeated the Archers.

“All I told them was: ano bibigay na ba tayo o hindi? They responded well. Maganda naman idenepensa namin (especially in overtime).”

Pitted against Season 75 runner-up University of Santo Tomas and perennial cellar-dweller University of the Philippines, the Tamaraws flaunted their merciless scoring arsenal to hack out convincing victories.

Opposite five-time defending champion Ateneo de Manila University, National University, and Adamson, FEU displayed its ability hold back repeated fightback with Romeo, Garcia, and Tolomia and the rest all stepping up.

“Alam nila na ‘pag nagkanya-kanya kami walang mangyayari sa amin. Tulungan lang talaga ito,” Gonzales said. “Yun ang isa sa mga problema ng team last year, ang pagkakanya-kanya lalo na sa mga crucial na parts ng laro.”

Changing the Tamaraws’ view of the game doesn’t end with long talks about strategies and heart. If anything, Racela’s code of unselfishness and discipline has rubbed well on his players, Gonzales observed.

“Coach Nash is like a father to them (players). More than their skills, he is more concerned with the players’ characters. Mas interesado siya sa pagkatao ng players niya.”

Gonzales added: “Before we came over, ang gulo nung summer. Walang disiplina. Kaya ang aga namin na-out sa Fil-Oil.”

But that is all in the past now. Looking forward to the second round, Racela and his coaching staff just hope that the Tamaraws will stay healthy and consistent for the tougher grind ahead.

“We have to avoid injuries. Our goal is to be the no.1 defensive team. We still believe we are a “doormat” team on defense,” Gonzales said. “Yet we were blessed. Isipin mo nananalo kami kahit di pa kami malalim sa depensa.”

The Tamaraws need to limit their fouls (22.3 percent) and turnovers (12.3 percent), being undesirably number one on both categories.

Scouting also needs more fine-tuning, Gonzales said.

“Di pa rin kami malalim sa scouting. Important yun para ma-control namin tendencies ng mga magagaling na kalaban namin like (Ray) Parks (Kiefer) Ravena, and (Roi) Sumang. If we can defend them one-on-one, that’s better. Kung hindi, then the help (defense) should always be there,” he said.

“We are continuously preparing. Our fundamentals should be sound by now.”