(First of two parts)
IN a year where most of his contemporaries have already gone, Jeron Teng relished every moment of his swan song.
“I just wanted to give everything for La Salle,” said Teng.
True enough, Teng left the Green Archers as a winner as “mayhem” reigned supreme.
After missing the Final Four last season, La Salle returned to the throne, annexing its ninth championship with a 79-72 victory over bitter rival Ateneo in the UAAP men’s basketball tournament last Dec. 7 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Under intense scrutiny with a powerhouse roster, coach Aldin Ayo responded by steering La Salle back to where it belonged.
The Archers finished the season with a 16-1 card, their lone loss coming at the hands of the Blue Eagles late in the elimination round.
“Grabe ang pressure, ang galing ng mga coaches. Mabuti na lang at magagaling ang mga players,” said Ayo after La Salle swept the best-of-three series, 2-0.
“We just embraced the pressure all-season long,” he added.
One of emerging young coaches in the collegiate basketball scene, Ayo followed up his success at Letran last season in improbable fashion.
While he won the crown for the Knights as heavy underdogs, Ayo added another to his trophy box by giving the title back to the Archers, as they lived up to their lofty billing as consensus favorites.
“It feels good, but... hindi ko iniisip ’yun. Ang iniisip ko lang ay maibalik talaga ang championship dito sa La Salle,” said Ayo.
In his final game for the Archers, Finals MVP Teng came through with 28 points while season MVP Ben Mbala tallied his 17th double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
It was a season to remember for Mbala, the Cameroonian center who became the first foreign player to win the season MVP honors in the last 35 years.
Despite losing four players led by Teng to graduation, La Salle still looks formidable next season with Mbala leading the “mayhem.”
“Mas magulo kami next year,” said Ayo.
Despite the Finals loss, Ateneo overachieved as it made good strides under coach Tab Baldwin, dethroning Far Eastern University in the Final Four.
“As a coach of 35 years, this has been a transformational one for me. This leads a greater purpose, of coaching young men,” said Baldwin after the Thanksgiving Mass at Ateneo’s Church of the Gesù on Wednesday night.
Taking over an upstart squad after Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal have graduated, Baldwin’s journey had a bumpy ride, as the Eagles went 4-4 record in the first eight games.
After a stunning loss to University of the Philippines, the first against its Diliman rivals in seven years, Ateneo went on a six-game winning streak to finish second in the eliminations and dethrone Far Eastern University in the Final Four to forge a “Dream Finals” with fierce rival La Salle.
The Blue Eagles were swept by the Green Archers in the championship, but not without giving a fight, as proven by their narrow Game 1 65-67 loss.
“This team is good. They have elicited great feelings from their hard work and dedication,” said Baldwin, who also handled the Gilas Pilipinas team that competed in the Fiba Olympic qualifiers last July.
Gaining the needed experience, Baldwin is upbeat that a much stronger Ateneo team will compete next year, even with La Salle still brandishing a powerhouse roster.
“It is through this process, that to our fans, we will give you championships in the future. I know how you feel about this team, how accomplished they are,” said Baldwin.
“But I promise you, these well wishes will not weaken and deter us from becoming great players. We will fight for the Season 80 championship,” he added.
Only GBoy Babilonia is graduating, but the Eagles remain solid with Season 79 Mythical Team member Thirdy Ravena, Adrian Wong, Anton Asistio and Mike and Matt Nieto staying put.
Of course, there is slotman Isaac Go, who was impressive in manning the paint, especially in the second round when Ateneo’s starting center Babilonia went down with an injury.
Although the Tamaraws fell a game short of making it to the Finals, there was nothing to be ashamed of for the 20-time champions, who made this far despite losing almost the entire starting unit led by Mac Belo.
“It was a well-fought game. We were a second short,” said coach Nash Racela, after a 68-69 overtime loss to the Eagles which ended their season. “I don’t define this stint on my last game. I think we did well in the program. There’s always a positive on these things.”
Racela has already moved up to the pro ranks, with younger brother Olsen Racela taking over the reins of FEU.
Also making a mark this year was Adamson, which made it to the Final Four for the first time since 2011 before being eliminated by La Salle.
“Being here is already success on my part. I think I was able to fast-track anything. We are looking forward at 2017, but we are here right now enjoying the Final Four,” said Falcons coach Franz Pumaren, a five-time UAAP champion.
A big letdown was National University, which two seasons removed after ending a 60-year title drought was bundled out of the Final Four picture.
That led to the resignation of coach Eric Altamirano, with Jamike Jarin now taking charge of the Bulldogs next season.
Then there’s University of Santo Tomas, which ended in last place with a dismal 3-11 record under rookie coach Boy Sablan, just a year after wounding up second to FEU.
NU’s disappointment in men’s basketball was made up for by the championship runs of its women’s and juniors’ squads.
The Lady Bulldogs completed a third straight perfect season in the women’s division with a 96-72 dismantling of La Salle.
A strong second half is what the Bullpups did to douse any hopes of a La Salle-Zobel fightback in the title series and fashion out a 96-75 victory and annex their third championship in five seasons under coach Jeff Napa.
Finals MVP Gemma Miranda and Season MVP Afril Bernardino sizzled as NU made sure that there will be no repeat of its narrow 77-74 victory that threatened the league’s current longest winning run in any sport.
“I just told the girls to take care of the ball and make some adjustments. Siguro ’yung defense namin, maganda. If we play good defense, our offense will just come easy for us. Gemma and Afril played good today,” said Lady Bulldogs coach Patrick Aquino.
The win was also some sort of sendoff for Bernardino and Miranda, who have already completed their playing eligibility.
Although NU failed to complete a perfect season in the juniors division after a humbling 60-71 loss in Game 2, it didn’t matter for Napa.
“Actually, sobrang saya ko. Hindi ko naisip na mapupunta kami sa ganitong sitwasyon. Dati naglalaro lang. Akala ko hindi ako mapupunta dito sa coaching. Ibinalik ako ng eskuwelahan ko,” said Napa, who fired a men’s basketball all-time record of 10 three-pointers while playing for the Bulldogs in 2002.
“Doon ako nakilala, so sinuklian ko sila. Masarap na pakiramdam ’yung makita ’yung ups and downs ng NU. ’Yun and motivation ko para maiangat ang aming high school basketball program,” he added.
Despite the fact that he is now handling Letran in the NCAA, Napa eventually stayed put with the Bullpups.