MANILA, Philippines -- The National University Lady Bulldogs ended UAAP Season 85 the way they started it: as champions of the women's basketball tournament.
They took a different road to the title, as a loss to De La Salle University in the second round ended their historic 108-game winning streak and ensured that there will be a traditional Final 4 in the women's tournament for the first time since 2013.
The loss to the Lady Archers served as the ultimate motivation for the Lady Bulldogs. The two teams met again in the best-of-3 Finals, and National U dismissed La Salle in two games to secure a seventh straight women's title. They won the two Finals games by an average of 22 points.
They may have made it look easy in the end, but the Lady Bulldogs insist that their path to the Season 85 title was a difficult one. It was particularly hard on the team's veterans, who were embracing a leadership role for the first time in their collegiate careers. That this was the first UAAP women's basketball tournament since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic only added to the challenge.
"The odds were against us," says NU star Camille Clarin, who was quick to acknowledge that her statement may be controversial.
The Lady Bulldogs still featured the deepest team in the league, with any player capable of taking over at any time. In the Finals, it was rookie Kristine Cayabyab who shone brightest, with Clarin and super senior Mikka Cacho backing her up.
It was clear that the Lady Bulldogs peaked during the Finals, but the road to get there was not without bumps.
"There were so many times in the season where we like, sat after games, and we were just like, what are we gonna do?" Clarin recalled, referring to herself and Cacho, the lone graduating player for National U.
"Because none of us have ever had the role of a leader, of a star player," she said.
In previous seasons, Clarin, Cacho, and Angel Surada didn't have to do anything but just play. It was the likes of Jack Animam, Monique del Carmen, and Kaye Pingol who shouldered the burden and took on all the pressure. All of those players have graduated, however, and the newly-minted veterans did not immediately feel comfortable in their new roles.
"Going into a season where you have no more Jack, you have no Monique, no Kaye, any of those types of players, and you're also under a coach whose in his first year of coaching women's basketball, the odds were against us," said Clarin.
The architect of NU's dynasty, Pat Aquino, had stepped down from his post in May and Aris Dionisio had taken over.
"As much as everyone said no, NU's stacked, the odds were against us," Clarin stressed.
That they still managed to extend their dynasty even in the face of such unique pressure is a source of pride for Clarin.
"We took the challenge and we never swayed too much away from the route. We always had a goal at the end of the day," she said. "There was a lot that went into this and I'm just proud of us."
UAAP Season 85 is streaming on iWantTFC every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.