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Van Opstal and Torres looking to continue inside job

By Paolo Mariano Posted Oct 10th 2013

La Salle's Arnold Van Opstal and Norbert Torres have owned the shaded lane with their aggressive play and they look to continue doing so in the deciding Game 3.

It was definitely an inside job. No further investigation was needed.

With its back against the wall, De La Salle University capitalized on its obvious size advantage as it trampled University of Santo Tomas (UST) last Saturday to force a winner-take-all Game 3 in the Season 76 UAAP Finals. 

Masterminding the operation was the fearsome frontline tandem of Arnold Van Opstal and Norbert Torres. All game long, they manhandled their UST counterparts, who looked helpless against their height and girth. They combined for 29 points and 24 rebounds to power the Green Archers to the precious W.

“We just let it all out on the court. Rebounding, that's all heart. We took advantage of our height,” said Van Opstal.

They put their hard hats on, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work like diligent blue-collars. With the way they marked their territory in the paint on both ends, they should've put up a warning sign: Drive/box out at your own risk. The Growling Tigers looked like hapless high school players jumping for rebounds against the 6-foot-7 Van Opstal and 6-foot-6 Torres.

“They did their job. They played well on both ends. We did our game plan,” said La Salle head coach Juno Sauler.

If Ray Parks called UST the “Bad Boys,” then the Green Archers’ demolition duo is La Salle’s version of the Bash Brothers, the best friends in the Mighty Ducks movies known for their toughness and proclivity for physicality.

“They're really a force inside, especially when they're in the game together. It's hard to get rebounds against them. They're smart players, I really look up to them," said rookie teammate Jason Perkins.

Well, the smaller Growling Tigers also look up to them, only in a literal sense. They were badly out-rebounded in Game 2, most notably on the offensive glass. UST only tallied 10 compared to the whopping 27 of the Green Archers, which they converted to 18 points. Those two statistics clearly spelled the difference in the game.

“We weren't able to stop their (La Salle) big men inside. We were out-hustled. It was frustrating, but it is what it is,” admitted head coach Pido Jarencio.

The boys from España particularly had trouble matching up with the hefty Torres, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, seven of them offensive, in only 18 minutes of action. That’s efficiency for you. He ably made up for his atrocious Game 1, where he only had two points and six boards in 21 minutes.

The soft-spoken Torres joined La Salle in 2011 as a highly touted recruit out of Mother Teresa Secondary School in Toronto, Canada. His rookie year, however, was underwhelming. Despite his size, strength, and mobility, he wasn’t exactly the inside presence the team wanted as he usually settled for outside shots. Most observers believed he’s overhyped.

But the guy nicknamed as “The Bear” has slowly come to his own in the last two years, finding his spot in the team as a post option and an enforcer in the shaded lane. In this season’s elimination round, he averaged decent norms of 7.1 PPG and 8.1 RPG. He has learned to use his body and avoid settling for outside jumpers. In his first year, he attempted 15 three-pointers. In the last two seasons, he has shot a combined four.

“It's very difficult for any team to guard a big man. I guess the challenge for me is to perform well consistently,” said Torres, who played for the RP Youth Team in 2009 along with current UAAP players RR Garcia, Frank Golla, Joseph Marata, JR Sumido, and Mark de Guzman under then-La Salle mentor Franz Pumaren. 

As for Van Opstal, his road to league recognition isn't much different. He started off as a prized greenhorn out of La Salle-Zobel but was usually ridiculed by fans in his first two years because of his mediocre, almost incompetent play. He regularly missed point-blank shots, got pushed around by opponents, and turned the ball quite often.

But as expected, Season 76 became a breakout year thanks to his renewed dedication on his game. His hard work didn't come unnoticed as he was recently named the league’s Most Improved Player after averaging 9.3 PPG and 6.3 RPG from a pedestrian 4.9 and 5.2 numbers in 2012.

“I'm prepared to get tired, if that's what it takes to win,” said Van Opstal, who tallied 13 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists in Game 2. “I don't consider playing well as pressure. I consider it as an obligation to my team.”

The worst-kept secret to the Bash Bros.' emergence is assistant coach Jun Limpot, one of the best players in UAAP history, winning two titles and three MVPs. He went on to become one of the most talented and versatile big men in the pros with his deft mid-range game, athleticism, and motley of moves in the paint.

He was brought to Taft last season by then-head coach Gee Abanilla and has since tirelessly worked with La Salle’s pivots, especially Van Opstal and Torres. 

“I notice they're now more confident inside. I always tell them during practice to focus on repetition. After that, their movements will become second nature, everything else will follow. They’re strong, agile, and quick learners,” said Limpot.

But even though their inside job was near flawless in Game 2, the carom-hungry combo knows too well not to take the Growling Tigers lightly in their do-or-die battle.     

“I feel I can do damage inside but I still got lots of respect for them. They're no pushovers. They did well in denying me the ball (in Game 2). I just did my best and glad that it worked out,” said Van Opstal.

“We can’t impose our will all the time. Karim (Abdul) is good and strong. He's one of the hardest players to guard. We need to work on how to neutralize him,” said Torres.

At the end of Game 2, Torres emerged out of the locker room and was surprised to see his aunt waiting for him. He kissed her on the cheek and took pictures with her. After all the shoving, jostling, and elbowing on the court, he was still this sweet, polite kid in a 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame. Come Game 3 though, he’ll be even more of a menacing and unforgiving force in the paint.

“I’ll be more aggressive but at the same time, I’ll just let the game come to me, let it happen,” said Torres.

Minutes later, after he’s done with all the interviews from reporters, Van Opstal touched the big wooden crucifix near the dugouts at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum. He prayed in silence for several seconds and then walked away. Safe to assume, he gave thanks for the victory. Then most probably, he also asked for guidance and strength this coming Saturday.

Perhaps, the Growling Tigers should also do the same as they battle the Bash Bros. anew.