NU wins 2nd UAAP title after 60 years
MANILA, Philippines–National University (NU) finally shook off the whipping team-tag that hung around its Bulldogs in decades past. And this time, they can proudly call themselves champions.
Completing their long and arduous climb from league doormat, the transformed Bulldogs dominated the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, 75-59, in the Finals decider Wednesday to capture the UAAP men’s basketball championship and snap the league’s longest title drought of 60 years.
The No. 4 Bulldogs, who barely made it to the semifinals, also became the lowest-seeded team to bag the crown following huge games from Finals MVP Alfred Aroga and Gelo Alolino in the winner-take-all Game 3 that drew a boisterous record crowd of over 25,000 at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“It was really a long journey for us,” NU coach Eric Altamirano said. “But all those adversities we had to go through, they made us stronger.”
Even more incredible, the Bulldogs pulled off the title romp against the fancied Tamaraws, the team that boasts the most number of crowns in the league with 19.
“They just wanted to win, that’s all,” said Hans Sy, the SM Prime Holdings chair, whose financial support helped transform the Bulldogs.
While the Bulldogs picked up only their second title in the league’s 77-year history, this one was truly unexpected.
Five times this season, the Bulldogs stood at the brink of elimination. And five times they survived with different game heroes stepping up.
And in Game 3, it was Aroga who took charge with a huge double-double of 24 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs’ relentless assault in the second half.
Alolino also dropped eight of his 12 points in the second half, where the Bulldogs zoomed to double-digit leads as high as 16 points, 70-54, in the thrilling match that shattered attendance records anew with a crowd of 25,138.
“There’s a collective spirit among them that they won’t give up,” Altamirano said. “They refused to lose.”
The Bulldogs showcased it again as FEU’s ace guard Mike Tolomia got off to a hot start to tow the Tamaraws to an early 11-5 lead.
But NU’s big men, led by Aroga, started asserting themselves inside to push the Bulldogs ahead, 20-18, by the end of the first quarter.
From there, the Bulldogs just kept pounding with Glenn Khobuntin also chipping in and young gunners Jay Alejandro and Rev Diputado starring in key stretches.
“With this team, you never really know who’s going to step up,” Altamirano said.
Stripped of stars this season, including two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Ray Parks, the Bulldogs surprisingly became the first fourth-ranked squad to win the title since the league adopted the Final Four format in 1994.
The Bulldogs, though, almost didn’t even make it to the Final Four as they had to go through a playoff match against the University of the East for the last semifinal berth.
In the Final Four, the Bulldogs again fought off elimination twice as they shockingly eliminated the No. 1 Ateneo Blue Eagles by overcoming their twice-to-beat semifinal advantage.
When the Tamaraws took Game 1 with a 75-70 decision, the Bulldogs rose to the occasion anew with a clinical 62-47 Game 2 triumph last week.
“Every knockout game that we played made us stronger and helped us gain more confidence,” Altamirano said after the Bulldogs remarkably survived their fifth do-or-die match this season with their Game 3 win.
“All of those games really prepared us for Game 3. The players felt that they’ve been here. It’s not new to them,” he added.
The Tamaraws painfully fell short of making their own history with a 20th overall crown even if their top duo of Tolomia (23 points) and Mac Belo (17 points and 13 rebounds) came out sizzling.
“It was really tough,” said FEU coach Nash Racela. “Any angle you look at it, we were overpowered by Aroga. We did not have a person to match up against him.”
But it wasn’t just Aroga who did the damage as Khobuntin also unloaded 10 markers and Alejandro, who sparked the Bulldogs’ strong second quarter, also finished with 10.
Diputado, the Bulldogs’ rookie guard, also knocked in five straight points that helped defuse the Tamaraws’ comeback attempts in the third quarter.
Among those celebrating the Bulldogs’ historic title romp were former President and NU alumnus Fidel V. Ramos and Nestor Sapida, the last known member of the Bulldogs’ 1954 champion team.
Very, very happy
“I’m very, very happy,” said the 78-year-old Sapida, who at only 5-foot-11, played center then. “Before the game, at the dugout, I already told them that we have this already.”
True enough, it seemed like destiny for the Bulldogs.
“Who would have thought,” said Altamirano.
NU 75—Aroga 24, Alolino 12, Alejandro 10, Khobuntin 10, Neypes 8, Rosario 6, Diputado 5, Betayene 0, Javelona 0, Perez 0, Salim 0.
FEU 59—Tolomia 23, Belo 17, Dennison 6, Cruz 4, Jose 4, Iñigo 3, Hargrove 2, Tamsi 0, Ru. Escoto 0, Pogoy 0, Ugsang 0, Ri. Escoto 0.
Quarters: 20-18, 30-26, 55-44, 75-59
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