What follows is the prologue that I wrote from the book: The NU Champions! The story of the National University Bulldogs' incredible season. The book just came out. Unfortunately, this isn't going to be on the shelves. It will be given away to corporate friends, sponsors, school officials and alumni, and of course, the basketball team.
Prologue: Two minutes from glory
by rick olivares
October 16, 2014
Smart Araneta Coliseum
With a little over two minutes to play in Game Three of the Finals of the UAAP Season 77 Men’s Basketball Tournament, Glenn Khobuntin, oozing with supreme confidence, hit a basket to give the National University Bulldogs a 70-54 lead. The Smart Araneta Coliseum, bursting with 25,138 fans, rocked from the huge roar let out by those in Bulldogs’ blue.
Far Eastern University Tamaraws head coach Nash Racela called for a time-out as his team was in desperate need of some quick baskets and even quicker stops.
Over at the NU bench, Racela’s counterpart, Eric Altamirano, knelt down and looked his team in the eye. “Hindi pa tapos ‘to. No letup on defense,” he barked. “We have to challenge every shot but we also have to be careful with our fouls. No fouls, especially in the act of shooting. We do not want to give them bonus points from the free throw line.”
“Coach,” calmly interjected first year Cameroonian center Alfred Aroga. “We got this.”
Altamirano paid no attention to Aroga even if his team was backstopped by a 16-point lead with only 136 seconds left in the game.
“Deny Mike Tolomia the ball…” the head coach continued with his plethora of reminders.
“Coach,” respectfully intoned point guard Gelo Alolino, who repeated Aroga’s words. “We got this.”
Altamirano paused, looked them in the eye, and nodded.
On the cusp of his first major championship since 1998, when Altamirano guided the Mobiline Phone Pals to the Philippine Basketball Association Centennial Cup, the soft-spoken coach couldn’t remember that win or the championship he guided Purefoods to in the 1997 All-Filipino tourney. Nor could he think of the 1986 UAAP men’s crown he won while playing for the University of the Philippines.
“All I could think of was the UAAP Finals of 1983,” admitted Altamirano later on. As a freshman that year, Altamirano and many of his former San Beda teammates, who had found a refuge in the University of the Philippines following their high school alma mater’s bolting the NCAA, thought they could continue their winning ways in Diliman.
And it looked like the happy days were going to continue. Only in a different zip code.
During that finals against FEU and their Big Three of Glenn Capacio, Harmon Codiñera, and Jack Tanuan, the UP Fighting Maroons spotted their foes a 10-point lead with two minutes to play. FEU overhauled it for their fourth title in five years.
Added Altamirano, “I thought about 1983. Yes, and Season 76.”
In UAAP Season 76, the NU Bulldogs were tabbed as heavy favorites to finally win it all after a depowered Ateneo Blue Eagles squad left the men’s basketball tournament a wide open horse race. NU finished atop the eight-school standings with a 10-4 record and snapped up the crucial twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four.
There they faced the dangerous University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers who themselves were denied in the previous finals by the five-peat seeking Ateneo.
In the Bulldogs’ two elimination round matches with UST, twice they came away winners by an average of 5.0 points. They had no doubt that the win-or-go-home semifinals would be altogether a different ballgame.
They had no idea how different it would be.
Playing a more physical and bruising game, the Growling Tigers battered the more refined Bulldogs. For the second straight year, UST’s reed-thin but tall and energetic small forward Kevin Ferrer placed the clamps on NU’s main man, Bobby Ray Parks. Ferrer bumped, hounded and punished Parks to the point of frustration. The eldest son of former PBA great Bobby took only two attempts in the final quarter of Game Two and walked back to the bench injured with about two minutes left in a 76-69 loss as UST overhauled the twice-to-beat advantage of NU to book a return trip to the Finals.
“That loss weighed heavy on my mind,” understated Altamirano. “There we were with the strongest line-up we had in years and we didn’t win it. We came close. Close.”
In two previous occasions – in 1983 and 2013 – Altamirano’s teams got pipped in the last two minutes.
The start of Season 77 saw the loss of eight program mainstays – Parks, long-time center Emmanuel Mbe, shooting forward Lee Dennice Villamor, defensive stopper Kevin Porter, point guard Robin Roño, utility man Mark De Guzman, third-string point guard Cedric Labing-Isa, and tough as nails forward Jeff Javillionar, who went down because of a season-ending knee injury. “Hindi namin alam kung saan kami pupulutin. We had Alfred Aroga finally in uniform but outside of Gelo Alolino, no one else received significant playing time. We were left with a bunch of role players and some untested rookies.”
However, the underdog Bulldogs snuck up on the rest of the league with its roster of no-name stars and role players to mangle everyone with a stifling brand of defense. At one point, they won six consecutive matches. For the second straight season, they blanked Ateneo.
“The barometer of every team is Ateneo because of the excellence of their program plus their quality of play,” explained Altamirano. “They might not be the team that they were in the last two years but they still play excellent and intelligent basketball. For us, for NU to win it all, we had to go through the best.”
They survived four do-or-die matches before Game Three of the Finals – first against the University of the East Red Warriors for the fourth and last slot of the Final Four, two against top-seed Ateneo that was armed with its own twice-to-beat advantage, and one more against FEU. And now they were playing in their fifth win-or-go-home game.
There was literally no tomorrow after this day for this was the last match of the best-of-three series with FEU.
FEU. It seemed it was always the Tamaraws.
When NU won its last men’s basketball championship, it was in 1954 against FEU. The Tams denied Altamirano’s UP team in 1983 and now, here they were again -- for the championship in the Philippines’ most coveted college basketball crown.
Altamirano’s Bulldogs scored only one more point in the final two minutes and 16 seconds. The Tamaraws managed only five as they missed five shots in the last minute of play and were further hurt by a crucial turnover by Alejandrino “Achi” Iñigo.
Quite unintentionally and in keeping with the synchronicity of the series, with 16.1 seconds left in the game, the 16-point lead was maintained. And Eric Altamirano’s first thought wasn’t to celebrate. Like any good basketball coach, he was thinking ahead.
“I told myself that I have to quickly shake the hand of Nash Racela because when that buzzer goes off, it’s going to be crazy.”