“We were one shot away from the Final Four… The taste of that, we don’t want to taste that same thing again.” – Coach Derrick Pumaren
Critical losses: Roi Sumang, Charles Mammie, Bong Galanza, Dan Alberto
Vital returnees: Chris Javier, Paul Varilla, RR De Leon
Notable additions: Fran Yu, Philip Manalang, Shannon Gagate
Head coach: Derrick Pumaren
Last title: 1985
Style of play: Fast-paced, running, full-court press
Last season’s record: 9-5 (5th)
MANILA, Philippines – Playing in his final year, guard Bong Galanza received the bail out pass from primary playmaker Roi Sumang, who was double-teamed in the final possession. Down two points as the final 12.4 seconds ticked away, the veteran faked off National University’s Gelo Alolino and launched a wide open straight three-pointer with 3 seconds left for the win. The shot was short and bounced off the rim as time expired.
That’s how a Final Four ticket slipped away from the hands of University of the East in 2014. That’s how the Red Warriors remember a heartbreaking Season 77.
But that is also the memory they will take with them into Season 78, with a fresher perspective and a brand new chance to achieve their goal.
“We were one shot away from the Final Four and NU became the eventual champions. We were holding our breath,” UE head coach Derrick Pumaren recalled. “That hurts but that does not stop there. I hope that makes us work harder because it was still not enough. We got to do more this season.”
“The taste of that, we don’t want to taste that same thing again this coming season. I’m praying and hoping they will come out and step up to the plate and face the challenge,” he added.
This year, the Warriors are more confident in themselves despite losing key personnel and flaunting a throng of rookies. Their goal is still the same: to make the Final Four. Only this time, it may prove more difficult.
The biggest difference is how much smaller UE is now as they will play all-Filipino this season. But lack of size is hardly a hindrance to them.
“Being a small team will be our strength and advantage compared to the other teams,” Pumaren said. “We’ll use our quickness, we’ll use our speed. We’ll try to out-hustle them, we’ll play them 90 feet.”
It’s tough to say how the Warriors will fare against the bigger teams of the UAAP until they take the court. But during practice at least, the 18-time basketball champions look like they can hold their own with speed and endurance as their allies.
“We just have to cope up and I think the team has moved on, playing and accepting that they will be playing an all-Filipino crew this time,” Pumaren said.
“Undersized kami. Hindi katulad last year ang lalaki,” team captain and graduating center Chris Javier added. “Ngayon medyo nawalan kami ng materials pero yun yung biggest challenge sa amin, to face the giants.”
(We’re undersized. Unlike last year we were big. Now we lost some materials but that’s our biggest challenge, to face the giants.)
The Recto-based school continues to rebuild this season under the era of Pumaren. And unlike last year, when he inherited a roster, Pumaren now has more control over the pieces of his team.
Critical missing personnel include go-to guy Sumang and skipper Galanza, who both joined the pros, while big men Charles Mammie, Moustapha Arafat, and guard Gino Jumao-as are likewise no longer with the team.
Trying to fill in the gaps are blue-chip recruits Fran Yu and Philip Manalang.
“I think I must say I was able to get probably two of the top point guards in high school,” said Pumaren, who is impressed by their playmaking skills, court vision and pass-first mentality. “Also, I took into consideration that they’re winners. They came from winning programs and that says a lot.”
Yu, who stands 5-foot-10 and plays the point, is a rookie out of Chiang Kai Shek College expected to make his mark in the UAAP.
“Yung leadership tsaka yung pag-orchestrate ng plays,” Yu, 17, shared his role with UE. “Kami yung second coach sa floor.” (Leadership and orchestrating plays. We’re the second coach on the floor.)
Yu, who was named MVP at this year’s Palarong Pambansa after NCR won the crown, admitted the Warriors’ system and discipline are similar to Chiang Kai Shek but he said he is still only about 80% adjusted.
The 18-year old guard Manalang is also pegged to shine for UE coming from a champion program with the National University Bullpups.
Manalang, who is taking up Management and was part of the 2013 season sweep of NU, likewise feels it’s been a smooth transition for him from high school to college.
“Itataas ko pa yung level ng pakikipag-compete tapos yung intensity and magiging smart pa lalo (I will elevate my level of competing and intensity and I will play smarter),” said Manalang, who also expects a “successful” season given the hard work the team put in during the offseason.
Either Yu or Manalang is tipped to fill the shoes left behind by Sumang. Though neither player, including Pumaren himself, believe it’s an all-around fair expectation.
“Not much similarities. Sumang is more of a scorer. They’re more of playmakers,” explained Pumaren. “But when given the chance to score, they can score. Manalang is a big point guard, tough point guard that’ll be able to attack other teams.”
Another rookie to watch out for is big man Shannon Gagate who is also from Chang Kai Shek. At 6-foot-3, the 17-year old will be the back-up to Javier and veteran Paul Varilla.
“He’s not really big but he’s growing taller now,” said Pumaren. “From the time we started I think he grew an inch or two. I expect him to be our future big man.”
Pumaren also mentioned Jordan Sta. Ana from NU, as well as Edson Batiller from Holy Trinity in General Santos, and Nick Abanto from Jose Rizal University.
Guiding the rookies are Javier, Varilla, RR De Leon, and Renz Palma. Dan Alberto was initially included in the line-up and was named co-captain but was ruled ineligible by the UAAP.
Under the radar
For now, UE is hovering below everyone’s radars. They are considered a bottom half team but that’s exactly where they want to be. Just like last year, they are looking to be the dark horse in the league this season.
“I think we’re still going to be the same team,” Pumaren shared the identity of his squad. “We want to be exciting, we want to be go go go. We want to play defense. The defense is still going to be our main offensive weapon. If we don’t play defense, I don’t think we’ll be able to play other teams. The boys know that. They take pride in that.”
The Warriors will get its feet wet in a rematch of last year’s opening day against hosts University of the Philippines. While the Fighting Maroons only registered one win last season, they’ve likewise stocked up in the offseason and Pumaren has no plans of taking them lightly.
Compared to last year, Pumaren is more optimistic now of his team, having spent more than a year with them including the extended offseason.
“There’s no secret weapon. It’s just hard work,” he said. “The team chemistry and the attitude. Everything starts with the attitude, if we have the right attitude coming into the game we’ll give teams a tough time.”
“We’re under the radar right now I’m pretty sure,” he added with a knowing smile. “But we like that role right now. We’ll surprise them.”
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