MANILA -- CJ Perez's long, winding, and at times controversial collegiate career came to a mostly quiet end on Monday when he and the Lyceum Pirates were swept by the San Beda Red Lions in the NCAA Season 94 Finals.
Perez had been suspended for Game 1, after failing to inform the NCAA that he will enter the PBA Rookie Draft. Upon his return in Game 2, he tried his best to rally the Pirates to a deciding Game 3, torching the Red Lions for 11 points in the first quarter alone.
But much like Season 93, Perez and the Pirates could not get it done. They had no answer for San Beda's offense -- expertly ran by Perez's rival, Robert Bolick -- and their own run-and-gun game sputtered. With San Beda sitting on a zone nearly the entire game, Lyceum made only four of their 19 attempts from beyond the arc.
Perez finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists -- respectable numbers, to be sure, but far from enough to lift his team to victory. Still, he showed no signs of despair at the end of the game, even exhorting his teammates to lift their heads up as they faced the Lyceum gallery at the Mall of Asia Arena.
"Walang regret," Perez said afterward. "As long as binigay talaga namin 'yung very best namin."
"So they are the better team, sabi nga nila coach, 'di ba?" he added. "So walang regret na natalo kami ngayon and hindi naman dito nage-end yung journey ng basketball career ko."
Perez's basketball journey has already featured several stops. He first came into prominence in San Sebastian, even earning the nickname "Baby Beast" -- a homage to Calvin Abueva. Then, he found his way to the Ateneo de Manila University, but never played a single game in the UAAP: Perez would leave the school in 2016, before the start of the UAAP Season 79 tournament.
He landed on his feet, thanks to his old coach in San Sebastian. Topex Robinson, now at the helm of Lyceum, took in the player that he has always treated like a son. From there, Perez would flourish.
"Parang isang wonderful na journey para sa amin, at mas lalo na sa akin kasi ayun nga, nakapag-laro ako sa Lyceum," Perez said.
"Isang karangalan yung nakapaglaro ako sa LPU and nakarating kami sa Finals. Sobrang saya ko na nakasama ako sa LPU team," he added.
He believes that he has left a good legacy in Lyceum, along of course with several of Robinson's recruits. The Pirates were never thought of as an NCAA contender before Perez made his debut in Season 93, and immediately showed why he earned the "Baby Beast" moniker in his early days with the Stags.
Perez, in Season 93, was on another level, a whirlwind of a guard who left defenders reeling with his athleticism. Few teams had an answer for his lightning-quick first step, and his ball-hawking instincts anchored Lyceum's pressure defense.
With Perez as their star, Lyceum swept through the elimination round last year, winning all 18 of their games to burst into the Finals outright. There, however, they were outplayed by a more experienced, more composed San Beda team. The Red Lions simply knew what to do in crunch time, while the Pirates -- for all their talent, their speed, and their energy -- appeared flustered.
Their hope was that with one more year of experience, Lyceum would learn to match San Beda's composure with their own. But a year on, and they still had the same problems against the Red Lions. Lyceum's high-octane offense was no match for San Beda's discipline, and with Bolick controlling the ball, the Pirates could not force the turnovers that fueled their scoring runs.
"Same lang, talo lang din naman," Perez said when asked of this year's Finals match-up against San Beda.
"Parehas lang din naman, talo pa rin," he added. "Wala talaga tayong magagawa doon. 'Yun nga, iniisip ko ngayon, mag-move on sa next chapter ng basketball career ko and sa life ko."
He is proud of the culture that he helped build in Lyceum, along with twins Jaycee and Jayvee Marcelino, and the other recruits who came with him and turned the Pirates into a winning team.
"Yung legacy saka yung culture talaga yung pag sinabing Lyceum. Kaya namin lumaban," he said.
But as Perez said repeatedly during his exit interview, he is looking ahead to his next chapter. The event that caused him so much grief in the NCAA Finals -- the PBA Rookie Draft -- is on the horizon, and Perez is expected to be among the first players called.
Indeed, he may very well be the first player to step onto the stage. Columbian Dyip -- which owns the No. 1 pick -- reportedly has its sights set on the Lyceum guard.
"I'm very happy na mag-number one," Perez said. "Pero ayun nga, kahit anong team, kahit anong team sa PBA, basta makarating ako sa dream ko. Kasi lahat naman ng basketball player, dream yun eh na pumunta sa PBA."
"Excited ako para sa next chapter ng basketball career ko," he again said.
And what of the team that he will leave behind?
Well, Perez is excited for them as well. Certainly, the Pirates will miss Perez -- his production, his leadership, his sheer presence on the court cannot be duplicated, and Lyceum will have to work harder than ever if they hope to reach the same success that they had in the past couple of years.
Perez has no doubt that they will do just that.
"Naniniwala ako kay coach, sa coaching staff, at sa mga players na darating," he said confidently. "Kasi ayun nga, 'di lang namin kami ang mawawawalan ng key players -- pati sa ibang teams, mawawalan, so parang same lang eh."
"Nagtitiwala ako sa kanila, kasi nakikita ko 'yung effort ng mga darating talaga. Nakikita ko ang effort nila sa practice. Talagang nakikipag-compete sila para sa slot nila," he bared. "So, I'm excited para sa mga susunod na kabanata ng Lyceum."
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