Now those of you familiar with my writings, or with me personally, will be sitting there right about now tut-tutting to yourself: "Mmmm, Grant is writing about basketball - a sport he professes to have little time for - what has happened? Has the world altered on its axis or something - have we unwittingly entered a parallel universe? Well, let me put your minds at rest - I admit I was wrong, if not about basketball, then certainly about the College variety of basketball that is played in the UAAP. In June this year, when UAAP Season 77 basketball was about to saturate the television screens every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday afternoon for the next four months, I had a simple choice to make. I could either dismiss the game and find something else to occupy my leisure time, or I could get with the program and actually give it a try - see if I could become hooked by this game. The votes are in - the results are tallied and the answer is plain and simple - a resounding YES! From the opening game of the season I became drawn into the whole College vs College rivalry that is so much a part of Philippine sport. I even found myself becoming an "expert" on the game, questioning the decisions of coaches, players and referees. Yes, I truly had become an aficionado of this game and I was enjoying every minute of it.
As someone who obviously didn't go to school here, I needed to find myself a team among the eight to "support". Having a daughter attending UP leant me initially in that direction, but one game of watching the "easy-beats" quickly dissuaded me of realistically supporting them to achieve anything more than the odd token win against Adamson, so I looked at the other options. Like most New Zealander's I am drawn to the under-dog, which in my mind ruled out Ateneo, De La Salle, UST and FEU, all four of whom were regular finalists over the past few seasons - in fact I was amazed to hear that every final since 1993 (except this year!) had featured either Ateneo, or De La Salle, or both. My choice of team to "support" was therefore either the University of the East Red Warriors or the National University Bulldogs. For a while I followed both teams closely and it soon became apparent that UE appeared to have some serious discipline issues with some of its players. NU, on the other hand, seemed an incredibly closely knit team, with a real purpose. As last year's number one seeds, after the elimination round, with their twice to beat advantage, they had found themselves quickly bundled out of the finals by a then rampant UST. They were seeking redemption this year, and despite losing their star player, they seemed both intent and capable of claiming it. So - it was NU all the way for me from then on.
So, what was so special about NU's achievement in winning UAAP Season 77 - put simply, they displayed all the guts, grit, determination, character (and yes - humility) that makes a great team. They overcame immense odds to achieve this victory and it is a tribute to their coach Eric Altamirano who fashioned a team of ordinary sportsmen into world-beaters. He gave them an utter belief in themselves and they paid him back in spades, with the title. Just for a second, let's consider the path to the final for this amazing team:
1/ Finished the elimination round tied for 4th and 5th place with the UE Red Warriors.
2/ Defeated UE in an incredibly tight play-off game 51-49, to claim the last final-four berth.
3/ Had to beat the number one seeds, Ateneo Blue Eagles twice, just to make the final.
4/ Ateneo had only lost twice this season, in pool play, but interestingly enough their two losses were to the NU Bulldogs - NU seemed to have the "wood" on the Ateneo squad.
5/ Game one of the semi-finals sees NU prevail 77-74, after just managing to survive another one of Ateneo's legendary fourth quarter comebacks - forcing a do-or-die second game.
6/ Do-or-die game two - and what drama! NU lead 65-63, there's nine seconds left and it's Ateneo's ball - but - some of the lights go out and both teams end up waiting around 45 minutes for the lights to be restored. Finally, as expected it's Kiefer Ravena driving to the hoop for the tie and the extra time. He doesn't miss these shots - except when the man they call the Block Mamba - Alfred Aroga is around. Aroga leaps high and blocks Ravena's shot - the game is NU's - the final beckons.
NU have done to Ateneo exactly what UST did to them last year - redemption is achieved - now on to the final.
There was no Ateneo, no De La Salle, and no UST in this year's final. They said it just wouldn't be the same without those teams - and they were dead right! It wasn't the same - it was a whole lot better! FEU's Coach Nash Racela summed up his and many others feelings about the situation at the press conference following their disposal of De La Salle in the semi-finals. "This is the best thing that could have happened to the UAAP". I can't help but agree with him. Any sport, any competition, requires teams to be able to not just aspire to greatness, to reach the top, but to actually be able to achieve that. NU and FEU had shown that any team could win the UAAP if they play with their hearts and they devise a plan to do it. Well done to both teams for their advance to the finals.
And so to the finals - Game one did not augur well for the National University Bulldogs. All season their game had revolved around their resolute defense. It was their ability to shut down the opposing team's superstars that had got them this far, but perhaps it was nervousness, or just the amazing sense of occasion of a UAAP Final, but they lost their way and they forgot to defend. For whatever reason, after a bright start, the NU star faded and FEU ground them into dust, eventually coming out the victors 75-70. It was on to game two and hopefully three, for NU to erase sixty years of mediocrity.
All other schools may wish to take note: Attendance Game 2 - 24,896 rabid Bulldog and Tamaraw supporters (A record basketball crowd for the Big Dome). Attendance Game 3 - 25,118 (A new record attendance!). You're right, it definitely wasn't the same without Ateneo and De La Salle in the finals.
For the record, Coach Altamirano and his NU team returned to basics and in the end quite easily brought the victory home for the Bulldogs. Holding FEU to just 47 in game two and 59 in game three was the key to their victory. As Final's MVP Alfred Aroga said after the game - "You don't win a championship by offense, you win it with defense." NU reverted to what they knew best and finally broke their sixty year hoodoo. With key players Troy Rosario, Glenn Khobutin and others graduating, who knows if the NU Bulldogs can recreate Season 77 next year and go on to build a dynasty. It doesn't matter - for my mind, what matters is that UAAP Season 78 promises to be even tighter, even more competitive and even more exciting than this amazing Season 77 we have just witnessed.
There were many heroes for NU: Finals MVP Alfred Aroga, Glenn Khobutin, Troy Rosario and Gelo Alolino to name a few, but one often overlooked player I think deserves special mention is Nico Javelona. At "just" 6' 1" he is one of the shorter members of the team. The first time I saw him play, I thought..."My God, NU have a schoolkid playing for them." He just looks like a little boy, but his performance in defense, against Kiefer Ravena especially, and his three point shots just when they are needed made an enormous contribution to this team's success. In summary, NU struck me as a well coached, a well managed and a well behaved group of young men. They thoroughly deserved their victory and all power to them. So fitting also that a member of that winning NU team of 1954, Nestor Sepida, was on hand at the Araneta Coliseum to witness his beloved Bulldogs again taste victory.
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY BULLDOGS!
To my way of thinking this type of tournament, this type of victory - the triumph of the underdog is truly what sport is all about. This past Wednesday The UAAP, The National University Bulldogs, their fans, their alumni, and even little, old me, achieved sporting nirvana. What a fantastic day it really was! Bring on Season 78!
BUT FIRST - BRING ON NOVEMBER 22nd and the start of the UAAP VOLLEYBALL SEASON!