MANILA, Philippines – The Nash Racela era in Far Eastern University (FEU) ended in heartbreak on Wednesday, when the Tamaraws lost in an absolute nail-biter to the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles, 68-69, in their do-or-die UAAP Season 79 Final 4 game at the Araneta Coliseum.
Forty minutes were not enough to decide the outcome, as the two teams dragged each other in a gritty overtime period that saw them combine for just five points. It was Ateneo that converted the marginal basket – a putback by Isaac Go with 1:24 to go – and Ron Dennison's lay-up clearly came after the buzzer had sounded.
It marked the end of Racela's celebrated coaching stint in FEU, as he now moves on to formally assume the head coaching position of the TNT KaTropa in the PBA.
In his four years with the Tamaraws, he led the team to the Final 4 each season, culminating in a historic campaign in 2015 when they won the UAAP Season 78 title – their first in a decade.
"I don't want my stint in FEU to be defined by this last game," Racela, who was also celebrating his birthday on Wednesday, told reporters after their game.
"I think we did well with the program, and I know a lot of positive things will come after," he added.
Racela was reluctant to discuss his upcoming job with TNT, and even more so when asked about the legacy he left with FEU. "I think others will have to answer that question," he said.
For the FEU players, however, Racela was a game-changer.
Racela changed the culture in the squad, preached selflessness and discipline, emphasized teamwork over individual brilliance, and showed a knack for drawing out the best in his players. As Racela prepares to leave, the Tamaraws were one in expressing their gratitude and admiration for their coach.
"'Yung disiplina at 'yung attitude, 'yun ang pinaka-importante kay Coach Nash," said FEU guard Monbert Arong, who played just two seasons for the Tamaraws but nevertheless built a lifetime bond with his teammates and coaches.
"Parang papa ko na siya eh," Arong said of Racela. "Dinidisiplina niya ako palagi. Sobrang laking tulong noon para sa akin."
[Discipline and attitude are the most important things with Coach Nash. He became like my father. He instilled discipline in me and that was a big help for me.]
Dennison said Racela taught him how to change people's perception of his game, after earning a reputation for dirty plays early on in his UAAP career.
"Tingin ng lahat ng tao sa akin, tirador," said Dennison. "Natatawa na lang ako, kahit wala akong ginagawa, parang 'yun ang naging background ko na. Kaya pinu-prove ko sa sarili ko na marunong akong maglaro ng malinis."
[Everyone looked at me as a dirty player, even though I don't really do anything. So I proved to myself that I can play clean.]
Dennison credited Racela for teaching him to play honest defense,, while at the same time keeping aware of the referees. "'Yung mga referees, nagsawa na rin sa akin," he added. "Ipakita ko lang na wala, I just play well."
[The referees probably got tired of me. I showed them that I just play well.]
An emotional Raymar Jose said Racela taught him to "be proud," always. The graduating big man was the anchor of FEU all throughout Season 79, and it was his tremendous rebounding ability that helped the Tamaraws force a do-or-die game against Ateneo in the first place.
"Marami akong natutunan kay Coach Nash," he said. "'Yung pagiging disciplined, 'yung sacrifice."
[I learned so much from Coach Nash, including discipline and sacrifice.]
When Racela moves to the PBA, he will reunite with former star Roger Pogoy, who was taken by TNT in the special draft for Gilas players. But he will also find himself facing some of the players that he worked hard to develop in years past, most notably Mac Belo.
Now with the Blackwater Elite, Belo remains as supportive of FEU as ever. The Season 78 Finals MVP commended his former teammates despite their loss, and later paid tribute to Racela as well.
"Sobrang blessed kami na naging part si Coach Nash ng FEU," Belo said. "Part pa rin naman siya."
"Sobrang laki ng pinagbago ng FEU – 'yung culture na pinundar niya. Blessed kami, kasi 'di lang on the court 'yung itunuro n'ya. Off the court, sinusubaybayan pa rin n'ya kami," he said.
[We're so blessed that Coach Nash became a part of FEU. The culture in FEU changed a lot because of him. We're blessed because he taught us not just inside the court, but even outside the court.]
Racela himself said that he probably will not realize the kind of legacy he left in FEU until later on, probably 10 years into the future. Belo is confident, however, that what Racela has started will live on and progress, even as the coach walks away.
"'Yung culture na pinundar niya, nasa FEU na 'yan. Ganyan talaga eh – may nawawala, pero may papasok naman," said Belo. "Hopefully, next year, maganda ang ipakita nila."
[The culture he built will stay in FEU. That's how it is – some people will leave, but others will arrive to fill his place. Hopefully, next year they'll have a good showing.]
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