For the first time in five years, there will be a new king wearing the crown of the UAAP men’s basketball champions.
Mighty Ateneo de Manila University has seen its “six-peat” bid ended as they didn’t even make it to the Final Four stage. Instead, two rivals who dominated college basketball in the 1990s prepare to throw down for all the marbles in the best-of-three UAAP Season 76 finals.
Uncertainty on Taft Avenue
The De La Salle University Green Archers and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers took different paths to set this date with one another.
Less than a month before the season started, La Salle was rocked by the news that head coach Gee Abanilla was being put in charge of the Petron Blaze Boosters in the PBA. This was proof that former ambassador Danding Cojuangco was going to be an even bigger presence for La Salle this season as he handpicked Abanilla to take over his flagship PBA squad.
In Abanilla’s stead, former Green Archer and most recently Ginebra assistant coach Juno Sauler was tasked to bring the Green and White back to the Finals.
Already missing veteran big man Yutien Andrada this entire season due to injury, Sauler kept preaching that what would matter to him was that his boys learn and develop game-by-game as the season progressed. New recruits like big man Jason Perkins and point guard Kib Montalbo from Bacolod were going to have to deliver alongside the Archers’ already loaded roster.
In just his second year with DLSU, Jeron Teng already emerged as one of the team’s go-to guys. The 2012 UAAP Rookie of the Year was going to be tested throughout this year, particularly from the free throw stripe in endgame situations. By the time the playoffs rolled around, however, it seemed Teng had turned the corner and answered his naysayers.
The star-crossed college career of LA Revilla has seen him miss entire seasons due to injuries but in this final season, he can end everything on a high note.
It took a few years, but Arnold Van Opstal seemed to have finally found the footwork to be an effective big man in the UAAP. “AVO” often teamed with Perkins to wreak havoc in the paint for Sauler’s quintet, so much so that Norbert Torres often seems like an afterthought now.
A shaky first round ended with La Salle sporting a 3-4 win-loss record, good enough for a fifth-place tie in the standings. But they had finally begun to close out tight contests as the DLSU faithful started returning to the arenas in droves.
So strong was the Archer wave that, after beating erstwhile powerhouse Far Eastern University in a one-game playoff to determine who would have a twice-to-beat edge, the team from Taft Avenue would own a nine-game winning steak.
And after disposing of that same FEU squad twice in the Final Four, Sauler had booked the Archers’ return trip to the Finals, their first since losing to Ateneo in 2008.
Looking for leaders
In the case of UST, the sting of losing last year’s UAAP finals as Ateneo claimed its historic “five-peat” still gnawed at the Growling Tigers. With team captain Jeric Fortuna and forward Melo Afuang the only stalwarts leaving due to graduation, hopes were still high in Espana for a strong playoff push.
Though UST started strong behind Jeron’s older brother Jeric Teng and his hot shooting, tragedy struck in their first-round meeting against National University as Jeric injured his shoulder after banging into Jeoffrey Javillonar.
With their leader gone, Coach Pido Jarencio’s team was clearly rattled as they groped for form. Center Karim Abdul was nowhere near the force that he was in previous years, and neither were versatile forwards Aljon Mariano and Kevin Ferrer.
Jarencio clearly missed the leadership that both Fortuna and Teng gave his squad as neither Tata Bautista nor Ed Daquioag were natural point guards. It took the return of Teng (after the second-round game against Ateneo was rescheduled due to torrential rains) and Jarencio gambling on seldom-used backup Jamil Sheriff to finally bring back the bite that these veteran Tigers needed.
Pushed into a corner, Santo Tomas would have to exorcise the demons of Season 75 if they were to even make it to the Final Four as their rescheduled game against the Blue Eagles turned into a do-or-die contest. With Abdul attacking the smaller Ateneans in the first half and Teng delivering the killer blows in the fourth period, UST disposed of the defending champions 82-74. Yet the bigger challenge still remained.
Stunning the Bulldogs
Since the Final Four format had been implemented in the mid-'90s, no fourth seed had ever bested a top seed twice to enter the UAAP Finals. That was the unenviable task staring at Jarencio’s boys: take down the rising National University (NU) Bulldogs and two-time league MVP Bobby Ray Parks.
It seemed that this would finally be the year that the Bulldogs would return to the Finals after over 40 years of being the league’s laughingstock. NU coach Eric Altamirano had eased the pressure off Parks as more of his teammates shared the offensive workload.
Still, one couldn’t help but feel that after eliminating Ateneo, UST had figured out that they were once again a force to contend with. Engaging in a physical war of attrition that often left Parks & Co. frustrated, the Tigers took the first game in their series with NU, 71-62.
Mere days later, with a yellow-clad UST gallery in full force at the Mall of Asia Arena and with pressure solely on the Bulldogs, Santo Tomas did the unthinkable by stunning the number one seed 76-69 as Parks missed the dying moments of the game with cramps.
Two basketball powers from the '90s. Two proud brothers on opposing teams. UST last won the UAAP Championship in 2006, while DLSU did the same a year after. The calm demeanor of Juno Sauler versus the raving madness that surrounds Pido Jarencio. Green Archers versus Growling Tigers. Who will stand tall in the end?