Fifth title will be tougher than previous for San Beda, says Fernandez

MANILA, Philippines – The San Beda Red Lions have been the class of the NCAA’s seniors’ basketball tournament for the past few years, having won 7 of the last 8 championships dating back to the 2006-07 season.

Since losing to San Sebastian in the 2009 Finals, Beda has won four straight titles and now turns their attention to winning a fifth straight chip over the next few months. If they do so, San Beda would be the first to accomplish such a feat since the 1993-1997 San Sebastian Stags, which some call the last great dynasty of the NCAA. 

Another title for the Red Lions would push them to an unprecedented eight championships in the last 10 years, adding onto their already impressive resume.

However, just because the Red Lions have dominated their competition lately, that doesn’t mean victory will be guaranteed in October. As a matter of fact, the team’s head coach, Boyet Fernandez, believes that his boys are about to face their toughest challenge yet as they try to win the college’s 19th overall seniors’ title.

“It will be a tough one. Every championship is a tough one. But I think this season will be a tougher one due to the fact that all teams have improved, and I respect all their coaches,” Fernandez said yesterday, June 16, during the press conference of the NCAA’s 90th season at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Meanwhile, his chief big man, Ola Adeogun, shares the same sentiment.

“I think it’s going to be tough. Every year is tough because every team is getting better, and all these other teams are starting to know us, how we play, and they know our weakness.”

San Beda managed to extend its dynasty last season by conquering the Letran Knights in the finals, but not before the latter nearly dethroned the reigning champions in a tightly-contested series.

After decimating Letran in Game 1, the Red Lions were unable to close out their rivals in Game 2, losing by five. And in Game 3, San Beda had to fight and claw their way to victory, barely getting by the pesky Knights by four, 60-56, to win title number four.

Letran is no longer as strong a threat as it was last season considering the team’s star big man, Raymond Almazan, has taken his talents to the pros where he currently suits up for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. Still, the Knights are not going to be pushovers. And as Coach Ronjay Enrile said, they still have “The Wall of Intramuros,” promising to give the defending champions a battle every time they joust.

Moreover, the Almazan-less Knights have already proven that they can stay at par with Fernandez’s Red Lions. During the meeting between both teams in the recently concluded tournament, Letran took San Beda to the limit before eventually falling in double-overtime – but not without some controversial calls along the way – prompting the winning team’s head coach to say “Letran gave us a scare.”

And the challenges don’t stop with Letran. According to Adeogun and his head coach, a lot of other rivals impressed the current titleholders during the preseason tilt.

“Based on what happened in the preseason, I think JRU, Perpetual, and even Letran [improved],” said Adeogun. Later on, his coached added a couple more challengers to the list.

“I saw JRU and Perpetual beat La Salle. And you know La Salle beat us in the championship (FilOil). So, I’m wary about them as well. But if you look at it, LPU, EAC, and St. Benilde have been improving.

Last season, the EAC Generals barely missed out on the Final Four, ending in fifth place with a 10-8 record. LPU, on the other hand, followed in sixth place by finishing at 8-10. 

Benilde was a mediocre 5-13 last year, but a lot say they could have finished with a more appealing win-loss clip had they not been so unlucky in close-game situations. The team’s head coach, Gabby Velasco, believes it as well.

“Hopefully, we can win the close games this season,” Velasco said during yesterday’s press con, before adding that most of his roster from last year’s team is returning, with only three newcomers present.

UPHSD and JRU aren’t going to be cakewalks either. Both teams’ head coaches – Aric Del Rosario and Vergel Meneses – stated that they want their clubs to make the Final Four this season. Such a scenario would give Perpetual its second consecutive trip to the playoffs and another possible date with San Beda.

Nonetheless, Adeogun sees the rise of San Beda’s contemporaries as a challenge to show the team’s might, rather than something to fret about.

“I think it’s going to get tougher every year. But that’s what makes it more exciting. The tougher it becomes, the better,” he said. “We, we’re just going to stay focused, take it one game [at a time]. It’s still a long season.”

Fernandez also feels the same, and sees his team’s upcoming obstacles as another reason to improve and take their game to a higher level.

“Well I always make it a challenge for my players to work hard every day and really try to achieve the goals we want to achieve – especially winning a fifth championship for San Beda.”

He went further, praising the development of someone who has earned a vital role in his rotation – and one who happens to be extremely popular as well.

“I have Anthony Semerad, who’s improving really well in terms of defense. Before, he was just a shooter. Now, he can really play defense,” mentioned Fernandez about his mainstay who torched NU for 18 points in the second half in the FilOil quarterfinals. “I really appreciate what he’s doing right now. He’s doing a lot.”

On top of that, the other nine schools in the NCAA don’t have the continuity, chemistry, overall talent, and familiarity San Beda has used to propel them to four straight championships. That advantage is something the team is going to utilize as it looks to rule over the rest of the competition once again.

“I think right now our biggest strength is having our key players back. The rotation, it’s back. And then also, for us to be able to play as a team. That’s going to be our biggest strength this season,” noted Adeogun, whose squad took a page out of Smart Gilas’ book and spent its offseason training in Lithuania.

He continued: “I think we just need to practice more together as a team. That’s how we win – as a team, not as individuals.”

San Beda still has a lot of minor issues that need tweaking, such as the incorporation of the club’s two new rookies and making up for the loss of two veterans – Ritchie Villaruz and Francis Abarcar – to bad grades. But with guys like Adeogun, do-it-all forward Art Dela Cruz, veteran playmaker Baser Amer, the Semerad Twins, and many more returning, the road to the NCAA title goes through the Red Lions –