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La Salle, San Beda rise to collegiate thrones

SAN Beda University displays the true heart of a champion after surviving eight do-or-die games to rule NCAA Season 99 seniors’ basketball tournament. | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NCAA

Two prestigious programs — De La Salle University and San Beda University — rose as new kings of college basketball following their dramatic triumphs in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines and National Collegiate Athletic Association, respectively.

After a rocky start, the Green Archers clawed their way back to the top, shocking heavyweights National University and University of the Philippines to finally lift the UAAP trophy that had been eluding them for the past seven years.

But pulling off one of the greatest upsets in Philippine basketball history wasn’t easy.

In a casual conversation with Daily Tribune, La Salle team manager Terry Capistrano took a stroll down the memory lane, recalling the tumultuous moments in which the Green Archers were already staring at the jaws of defeat before realizing that they want to emerge as the last man standing.

“It was at the start of the second round when we realized that we can go all the way,” said Capistrano, noting that they had a dismal first round after losing three games.

“When we went into the second round, we were 4-3. Medyo masama yun ha for this kind of team that has all the materials. I think we turned things around during the UE (University of the East) game.”

FIRST-year De La Salle University head coach Topex Robinson steers the Green Archers back to the UAAP men’s basketball throne after seven years. | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UAAP

“At the end of the first round, we were playing UE. For some reason, we were having a hard time playing against them in the first half. Then, (La Salle head coach) Topex (Robinson) got mad and refused to coach. He asked (La Salle assistant coach) Caloy (Garcia) to call the shots.”

“Caloy responded by deploying all the second stringers. To our surprise, the move completely changed the complexion of the game and we were able to control the second half. Caloy really did a good job.”

Since then, La Salle was unstoppable.

The Green Archers played like a hot knife through butter, sweeping the second round to emerge as the second seed in the Final Four with an 11-3 win-loss mark. Then, they delivered a 97-73 masterclass against National University to advance to the best-of-three finals against the top seed Fighting Maroons.

UP marched to the finals with fire in its eyes.

After winning the crown in Season 84 — their first title since 1986 — the Fighting Maroons have been playing like hungry lions ready to pounce on their prey. Their hunger even grew when the Blue Eagles dethroned them in Season 85, making them dangerous foes when glory is on the line.

The Green Archers felt the brunt of UP revenge.

In Game 1, a crucial game that will dictate the tempo of their best-of-three series, the Fighting Maroons showed up prepared, dominating the Green Archers from all fronts to crush them by 30 points, 97-67, and move one win away from reclaiming the title they lost in Season 85.

Over at the La Salle camp, everybody was nervous.

“I’ll be lying to you if I say that I was confident that we can turn it around. I wasn’t too optimistic,” Capistrano chuckled, knowing that the Fighting Maroons were already smelling blood and ready to go for the kill.

“I was just smiling but deep inside, I was worried. In fact, I told my wife: Let’s go to sleep. Our chances are not good. Hindi tayo mananalo dito.”

He said he let the players talk among themselves.

“But this one, you just tell the coach that ‘it’s on you now. I can’t do anything for you. Hindi na kita matutulungan dito.’ But my suggestion was to let the players talk among themselves. Out na tayo dito. Wala ka ng magagawa dito. Sila-sila na ang bahalang mag-usap,” he added.

“And that’s what happened. Sila-sila nga ang nag-usap.”

True enough, the players-only meeting yielded a positive result. The Green Archers were able to bounce back with an 82-60 rout in Game 2 to force a winner-take-all encounter.

Now, it’s anybody’s ballgame.

“I was actually mad that we won only by 22,” Capistrano said before breaking into a hearty laugh.

“Remember that they beat us by 30. So to make it square, we have to beat them by 30 as well — not 22. So we were still short by eight points. I told them to win again in Game 3 so that they could return the eight points they owe us.”

The Green Archers refused to take their foot off the pedal as they hounded and pounded the Fighting Maroons from start to finish until they pulled off a thrilling 73-69 win in Game 3 to capture their 10th men’s basketball title.

GRADUATING guard Evan Nelle left a winning legacy in his last dance for La Salle. | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UAAP

Kevin Quiambao lived up to his billing as the Most Valuable Player, stuffing the stat sheet with 24 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks, while Evan Nelle provided the spark in the backcourt with 12 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block.

But it was Robinson who pulled off the biggest surprise, becoming the third coach in La Salle history to win a UAAP crown in his first year following Aldin Ayo in 2016 and Juno Sauler in 2013.

“Even before that, before the Final Four, we already talked. I told him that if things go wrong, you will get it in the neck. Tatamaan ka dito. Expect that,” Capistrano, who picked the 48-year-old Robinson from of an impressive list of prospects that included a multi-title champion coach in Louie Alas, a former La Salle star in Cholo Villanueva, and a seasoned international mentor in Rajko Toroman, said.

“I told him that the reason why you’re here, I know you’re brave enough to handle this. If you win, you’ll be the hero. So it’s up to you: Pick your poison.”

“It’s good that he delivered. This win was his ultimate vindication.”

Like La Salle, the Red Lions also enjoyed a rollercoaster ride to the top with a young coach steering the wheel.

The Red Lions blew hot and cold in the eliminations to finish with a 12-6 win-loss record that gave them the third spot in the Final Four.

They beat second-seed Lyceum of the Philippines University in the semifinals to book a best-of-three finals showdown against top seed Mapua University — a team that has yet to taste the sweetness of an NCAA crown since 1991.

The Cardinals showed up prepared as they dictated the tempo early on before warding off the huge rally by the Red Lions to secure a 68-63 win in Game 1.

But the Red Lions refused to give up.

They bucked a third-quarter collapse in Game 2 to pull off a 71-65 win that turned the series into anybody’s ballgame. Suddenly, the pressure was on the Cardinals, who were jittery when the crown was on the line.

True enough, the nerves got into Mapua as it suffered a massive late-game collapse that allowed San Beda to claim a 76-66 victory that gave them their 23rd men’s basketball title.

“Eight do-or-die games and they crossed the finish line as champions,” San Beda’s biggest benefactor, Manny Pangilinan, referring to the Red Lions who fought through adversities just to get into the Final Four.

“Such a story. What a feat. Such courage and will — the Red Lions 2023.”

JACOB Cortez shows the way in San Beda’s NCAA title conquest. | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NCAA

Escueta said it wasn’t just star playmaker Jacob Cortez who made the win possible, but everybody made significant contributions from the starters down to the benchwarmers.

“Probably, that’s our strength. You know that. I know you guys love Jacob Cortez, but this is basketball,” Escueta said.

“That’s how we built this, we built this team around 15 players in the lineup. We built this around 18 guys in practice.”

Escueta said they are far from done.

They will surely be back next year, hungrier, fiercer than ever. And hopefully, they don’t have to undergo any sudden-death matches.

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