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MANILA, Philippines – That was a classic worthy of the UAAP’s history books.
The UST Growling Tigers and UP Fighting Maroons drew a crowd of more than 18,000 people on Wednesday evening, November 13 at the Mall of Asia Arena, and the performance of both teams on the basketball floor was worthy of the viewership they attracted.
Back and forth the two varsity teams tussled, exchanging runs throughout 4 quarters of a game where every possession carried significant weight. In Game 1, UST delivered an early knockout of UP to force a rubber match. The Tigers hit the Maroons with another quick jab to open Game 2, but this time, State U was unwilling to succumb.
Led by a veteran savvy point guard and an MVP who was the best player on the court, UST converted the big shots late to deal UP what the latter did to Adamson last year: advance to the finals in the face of a twice-to-beat disadvantage.
The ecstatic crowd from España celebrated their first return to the finals since 2015, while the heartbroken from Diliman went home thinking of what could have been.
“It was tough,” said Aldin Ayo post-game. “It was really tough for us because of their adjustments.”
“Towards the end, it was anybody’s ball game.”
1. Renzo Subido is now a UST legend
Before 2019, the story of Renzo Subido’s collegiate career had been interesting, although low-key. A high school standout from De La Salle-Zobel, he was highly coveted once eligible to join the seniors division. After a quick pit stop with the Green Archers, he ultimately landed at UST, where the first two years of his career were hounded by injuries.
Subido became a UAAP role player in 2016 under head coach Boy Sablan. A scoring explosion against UE put him on the map, but inconsistency limited him from reaching his full potential. The biggest factor for that was the head coach, whose tenure with the Tigers was forgettable.
Renzo made a smart choice to sit out the 2017 UAAP season, and used that free time to improve in the PBA D-League under Koy Banal.
When Aldin Ayo took the Tigers’ coaching job, he finally had a mentor who knew how to develop a player of his caliber. Surrounded by talented teammates in Season 82, Subido’s playmaking blossomed, and consequentially, his shooting improved.
It was clear from the start of the season that he was UST’s smartest and most patient player, which made him the clear go-to guy for a basket down the stretch of a game.
In Final Four battles, gaining early momentum of the contest usually leads to victory. In each of UST’s do-or-die playoff battles this past week, it was always Renzo who put his Tigers first on the scoreboard. His control of the offense was masterful, enabling the likes of Soulemane Chabi Yo, Mark Nonoy, and Rhenz Abando to deliver highlight plays.
When a ticket to the finals was on the line, Ayo trusted his steady veteran to take control, and with the guts of steel, Subido delivered.
2. Before figuring it out, early struggles hurt UP
Like homework in high school, the cons of cramming in a basketball game comes back to bite you. While UST knew exactly what to do in the opening moments of Game 2, it took a while for UP to figure out a mode of attack.
The Tigers played with fun on the way to an early 18-6 lead. They played free and confident, limited their complaining, and concentrated on the actions they needed to make on the basketball court. Unsurprisingly, that’s been the same mindset of Ayo in Season 82.
UP, meanwhile, figured things out by inserting both team captain Noah Webb and Fil-Aussie James Spencer in the 2nd period, where the Fighting Maroons changed what was going to be a blowout into a nail-biter.
They did that by focusing on what they needed to accomplish before worrying about scoring, which was to hustle on defense, run all over the court to contest UST’s long-range attempts, and sacrifice their bodies if required to match their adversaries’ grit.
The two young men personified each trait.
3. UP’s stars played like stars, but so did UST’s young game-changers
The idea to bring Juan Gomez De Liaño, Ricci Rivero, and Kobe Paras together was met with both excitement and criticism.
In an age where superstar-caliber standouts come together to form super teams – both in the pro and college worldwide – it made sense to link the trio together for the best shot at a title. With it, however, arrived the usual possibility of collapse.
With UP badly in need of a spark to open the final 10 minutes, Paras rose to the challenge with a one-handed rim crusher over two Tigers – including Abando – that will be a lasting image of his career with University of the Philippines, assuming he goes pro.
Athletic but far from a finished product, Paras battled early foul trouble and attempted to be the hero UP needed late, but the determined UST defense made it difficult for him to do so.
Juan’s performance in last year’s Final Four put him next in line as a UAAP sensation. That he was raised in the UPIS program and remained in Diliman for college added to the attractive uniqueness of his narrative.
Unfortunately, offseason injuries delayed his return to complete form, along with the challenge of meshing with his equally-talented teammates.
When Gomez De Liaño’s slick stepback jumper gave the Maroons their first lead at 59-57 with 5:13 left, it felt fitting.
Juan has always been at his best when he lets his natural basketball instincts take control rather than overthinking. Despite tough opposition, he went back to being the Juan GDL of last year, and that nearly delivered the victory for his team.
Rivero didn’t have “WOW” moments, but his all-around contributions were necessary for UP while it tried to stay within striking distance of UST in the first half.
His defense – usually unheralded, but often trusted – was integral as well. It’s fair to say Rivero also made decisions when the game was on the line he would probably choose to take back, but overall, he played well.
Another season in the UAAP could do wonders for him.
That would also mean the continuation of a friendly but competitive rivalry brewing between him and Abando, two players who have striking similarities. The latter didn’t connect on any of the potential daggers he attempted with minutes to go, but Ayo trusted the UAAP rookie to make the right decisions.
It’s no coincidence that every time the Tigers seemed to get a big stop, loose ball, or converted shot, Abando was part of the equation.
Nonoy’s breathtaking ball handling has stolen the Final Four, although his shooting lagged behind. Despite that, there was a feeling in the arena that it was only a matter of time before the UAAP’s Sonic the Hedgehog would rediscover his stroke, and that finally arrived when he connected on two deep balls early in the final period.
From the very beginning of Season 82, Ayo put his trust in UST’s two young newcomers, who displayed no fear from the moment they first step foot in the league.
4. Respect for Bright, Jun, and Noah
In what could end up being his last game, Akhuetie mustered every bit of energy his 6-foot-8 frame had left. No one did a better job of keeping UP in the fight when hope was being taken away by the Growling Tigers’ early onslaught. He battled for loose boards. He fought the more athletic Chabi Yo for rebounds. He scored despite the fatigue in his legs.
And eventually, that led to the disqualification of Jun Manzo, who committed his fifth and final foul to stop play in order for UP’s staff to attend to a fallen Bright. In his final act as a UP Fighting Maroon, the Cebuano made a sacrifice for a friend, like a true point guard would.
Not long before an emotional Manzo despondently walked back to the UP bench, he converted a layup he earned a reputation for converting to put his team ahead by 4.
When UST’s on-ball pressure helped erase UP’s lead, it was fair to wonder what would have been, had Manzo not fouled out?
With a roster filled of capable scorers, someone had to do the dirty work for UP. No one epitomized that better than team captain Noah Webb, whose final image as a UP men’s basketball player accurately shows how much he meant to his team.
To the outside, there will be those who see him as arrogant. If you ask someone from UP, chances are they’ll remember the memory of him hopping on the court as a victory in itself.
The Fighting Maroons wouldn’t have had the opportunity to return the finals if even one of them wasn’t in this season’s roster.
5. Chabi Yo was too good
One of the cases for maintaining the recruitment of foreign student-athletes in Philippine college basketball is that they elevate the leagues’ level of competition. UST and the UAAP’s MVP is a prime example of that.
Chabi Yo (22 points, 16 rebounds) is superb overall as a basketball player, but what’s most impressive is the many different ways he can provide for UST.
He can score one-handed shots where his body is falling towards one way. He can leap over anyone for rebounds. He can hit James Harden-like stepback jumpers. He can defend anyone on the opposing team.
No matter the day or opponent, Ayo and his staff, who deserve credit for developing their ultimate weapon, know exactly what they’re going to get out of him:
Including making clutch free throws.
6. The Aldin Ayo effect
Aldin Ayo is a man who’s no stranger to college basketball headlines, but no matter what is said or heard about him, this much will always be true: the man is a college basketball savant.
He’s only 42 years old, with a promising career still in front of him. That already includes a resume highlighted by Letran’s surprise title run over six-peat seeking San Beda in 2015, a championship with La Salle after defeating Ateneo in 2016, and steering University of Sto Tomas back to the finals in 2019.
The 61-year-old Tab Baldwin has developed a team that’s reigned over the UAAP in the last 3 years. The only time he lost a final series since his arrival was against Ayo’s Archers. Tab’s Eagles attained payback the following year. Now, with the passionate communities of both Ateneo and UST going head-to-head, this rivalry between two men who have mutual respect for each other will come to a fierce conclusion.
Undefeated Ateneo will be the rightful favorite, but UST was the team which gave them most trouble in the elimination round. No coach has fared against Baldwin better than Ayo, who has instilled the confidence in each Growling Tiger that they can defeat anyone.
UST is on a roll, and that’s important, because momentum is a powerful thing.
Ateneo will be ready for them.
7. Where does UP go from here?
Not long after UST ended UP’s bid at a finals comeback, news circulated about the potential departure of the GDL Brothers, Kobe, and even Bo Perasol.
Manzo has played his final season. There’s a chance that’s the case for Bright, too. There are young and encouraging prospects in the team, who will need developing.
Wherever the pieces of the puzzle land, University of the Philippines can find solace that an established program for the men’s basketball team is already in place. Crushing defeats are part of the process of being in the Final Four picture, and wanting to contend for a title.
In line with that: Bo Perasol’s team was outdueled by Aldin Ayo’s, but just last year, Perasol led an underdog squad to the finals. Is he a perfect coach? No. Is he the right one for University of the Philippines? Yes. How the Isko community defended him throughout Season 82 should speak volumes of his value in Diliman.
“There’s winning, and there’s misery,” the great Pat Riley once said, because in sports, one can’t go without the other.
UST, which lost its last 3 championship appearances in heartbreaking fashion, will work for another outcome.
While UP, still seeking the end to a drought of more than 3 decades, begins the wait for 83. – Rappler.com