MANILA, Philippines – 3 years ago, the 9-5 National University (NU) Bulldogs entered the UAAP Season 77 playoffs via a two-point tiebreaker with fellow 9-5 team University of the East (UE) Red Warriors. From that close shave, they proceeded to upset championship contender Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles in two close wins, 78-74 and 65-63, to enter the finals. Now suddenly riding high with momentum, the tenacious Bulldogs won 2 more against the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws to end a 60-year title drought for the Sampaloc-based school.
As fate would have it, it was the present-day Tamaraws once again pushing the Bulldogs to the brink of elimination in Season 80. After opening the 4th quarter with a 79-64, it appeared as though FEU would exact revenge on NU for their finals collapse 3 years back.
However, the graduating J-jay Alejandro was not fazed. With nothing happening for the Bulldogs on offense, he took matters into his own hands. The captain steered the ship, assisted on a series of and-ones for his teammates and sank buckets of his own. All of a sudden, the rabid Bulldogs were within two points of the stunned Tamaraws after a 15-2 run. After yet another FEU miss, Alejandro pulled up for the go-ahead three.
The improbable run has been completed as Alejandro let his emotions loose – screaming all the way to the arms of his awestruck teammates as FEU called for time. Since then, the Bulldogs never looked back as they swiped away an 87-84 victory from the 4th-seeded Tamaraws. With the win sending them to a 5-8 record, 6th-seeded NU stayed alive in the Final 4 hunt as FEU slid down to 6-7. Despite the Tamaraws setting the UAAP record for team threes with 18 makes in 42 tries (43%), all their efforts went down the drain as they gave up a 23-5 4th quarter run.
After the game, Coach Jamike Jarin went all out with his praises for his players, particularly for Alejandro.
“FEU made a run in the start and in the middle of the third, but we never bowed down,” said the outspoken coach. “That was the experience, the maturity I always wanted, and I saw it now. I’m just blessed to be around this young men.”
“When the 4th quarter started, J-jay Alejandro demanded for the ball,” he added. “We gave him the ball, he made the right decisions, and we executed very well. I just have to give hats off to Mr. J-jay Alejandro.”
When asked whether he was playing to save his final chance for the final 4, Alejandro said, “Going into the game, ‘yun talaga yung iniisip ko eh. If we lose, I don’t have a chance to play in the Final 4. Gusto namin na makita pa si Matt Salem na maglaro sa Final 4.” (“Going into the game, that’s really what I was thinking about. If we lose, I don’t have a chance to play in the Final 4. We just want to see Matt Salem play in the Final 4.”)
Recently, NU co-captain Salem has been battling a bout of dengue, and was unable to suit up for the Bulldogs during this crucial homestretch. However for this game, he still tried to play for around a minute before being taken out for good. According to Coach Jarin, his presence was enough to motivate the rest of the team en route to the comeback win. Alejandro attested to this, saying, “We were playing with a lot of inspiration from our captain.”
“Napagdaanan ko na yung ganito eh,” added Alejandro. “Back in Season 77, parang butas ng karayom yung [dinaanan] namin, so siguro yung mindset ko lang coming to this game is ‘Kaya pa.’ (“I’ve been through this. Back in Season 77, we passed through like a needle hole, so I guess my mindset coming into this game is ‘We can still do this.'”)
Although their fate is not totally in their hands, Alejandro will surely go down guns blazing before he rides off into the sunset. He’s been through worse, after all. – Rappler.com