By Aljo Dolores

The day was September 7, 2019. It was a loud Saturday morning at the Araneta Coliseum. The arena, which was usually filled with thousands of spectators during UAAP game days, was only occupied by a few dozen people as a tournament game went on. Even so, the fans cheered to their hearts’ content as they harmonized with the beat of the drums that resonated across every corner of the gymnasium.

The game was between the UST Growling Tigresses and the UP Lady Maroons. If this were a men’s division match, UP would be regarded as the favorites to win over a young UST team. The women’s division though was a different world on its own. In this realm, The Tigresses were among the top-tier teams, a rising threat to NU’s ongoing dynasty.

If anything, that game went on as expected: a masterful act for the Tigresses. From their suffocating press defense to their perfectly executed sets on offense, UST showcased its elite level of play, a proof that they’re ready to be the new queens of the league.

One player stood out in the Tigers’ onslaught against the Maroons, not just in terms of her height but her performance as well. Emblazoned in UST’s black and yellow kit, she was all over the floor, intercepting passes, blocking shots, grabbing the boards, and scoring on her own will. She gave everything UST needed on both ends of the court, a resounding proof that she was just a cut above the rest.

That woman was reigning two-time UAAP MVP Grace Irebu.

“I just try to play for the team,” Grace said after the emphatic win over the Lady Maroons. Telling such was an understatement, as she finished the game with 23 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and three blocks in just 22 minutes of play, sitting on the bench the entire fourth quarter.

In fact, Grace wore the black and yellow has been the focal point of the UST program ever since she donned the Tigers’ iconic black and yellow uniform. In just her first season with the Tigresses, Grace asserted her dominance as she became the first player from UST to become the league’s Most Valuable Player since Marichu Bacaro in Season 71. She continues to be the anchor of the revolution in España, as she averaged 21.9 points,  15.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks to clinch her second MVP award in as many years and help UST seal the second seed this season.

It’s amazing how a 21-year-old girl from Congo, a country so in love with football, found herself hooping 11,000 kilometers away from home. “I started playing basketball [when I was] already 14 years old,” she said. Before she even had any experience on the court, Grace’s only exposure to the sport was limited to the movies she had watched. She spent time seeing Michael Jordan documentaries, learning stories from MJ’s first three-peat up to his final title in 1998.

Perhaps like Jordan, Grace was destined to live a life of greatness in basketball. She may have picked up the ball late, but her legend quickly blossomed in her own country. In her very first sanctioned game, she was named as the best player of the match. That was when she was asked to formally join her school team. She agreed to give basketball a chance, not knowing where that would lead her. “I just try to play for the team.” This was how she approached the game right when she started playing.

Basketball was a gift given by the world to Grace. While it’s true that she started quite late compared to the other kids, there was no denying that Grace was born to play the game. In just a year, she went from high school basketball to the pros. She transferred to AS Vita Club, a team that played in Liprobakin, a professional basketball league in Kinshasa City. It didn’t take long before she caught the attention of the Congo national team. “The national team sent me outside the country to train, to prepare playing for the senior’s team,” she said.

Three years after playing organized basketball for the very first time, she flew to Barcelona, and then Belgium to improve her level of play while bearing her country’s name. It was her time in Europe when Grace learned to play outside the paint. “In Europe, I played perimeter,” she said. 

That’s what makes her such a valuable player on both ends of the floor. She’s a melting pot of different basketball styles and cultures. At 6-foot-3, she’s taller compared to her contemporaries. Yet she can run as fast as the wings. She could control the floor with ease: defend from anywhere on the court, stay in front of a scorer, block shots, and play the passing lanes. On offense, she could back down on smaller opponents, or take the battle in the perimeter when faced with stronger defenders.

However, it was also her curse. She had to leave her home at a very young age to pursue her career. “That’s my life now. Always going out of my country. Any country, for basketball, I can go,” Grace said.

But she was willing to accept all the consequences of chasing her dream. Anywhere for basketball—that’s her way of life. Being the basketball nomad that she was, Grace didn’t think twice when she got the offer to play for UST, a university located thousands of miles away from her home country, back in 2017.

There’s no denying that she’s in UST not just to play basketball. Foreign student-athletes in the country are presented with the prospect to pursue a college degree under athletic scholarships. Ola Adeogun and Kirk Long, among others, took advantage of this opportunity—the same chance which is given to Grace. While she can’t be under the bright lights of the courts around the world forever, she wants to dedicate her life to the sport. “After basketball, I want to be a manager, player or team,” Grace said. As such, she accepted UST’s offer with the hopes that the quality education she’ll gain will give her the tools to build a career in basketball.

Little did she know that outside of a new team to play with and an opportunity to obtain a college degree, Grace would find a new home in the Philippines. Ever since she stayed in the country, her teammates were supportive of her in and out of the court. “The team is good. It’s like family. [We have a good] team spirit and we give effort every day, every game,” Grace told The Varsitarian back in 2018.

Even outside of the confines of the court, Grace’s teammates and coaches still look after her. “She used to only speak French, so hirap siya with her lessons kasi may language barrier,”

said Karla Manuel, Grace’s teammate and roommate. Being a foreigner, Grace had a difficult time catching up with her studies. It’s such a good thing that she has her team to rely on. “Si Coach, yung team, lahat kami nagtutulungan para kay Grace,” Karla added.

Thanks to her team, Grace is in a position to be the best version of herself that she can be. “I feel happy. I feel grateful for my coaches, my teammates. They teach me, they train me, they give me opportunities to be the best,” she exclaimed. As such, she repays the support that she gets from her team by doing what she does best. “It’s my career. I want to make a name wherever I go,” she exclaimed.

Grace has her sights locked in on cementing her legacy in España by giving UST its 12th women’s basketball title, and first since 2006. With NU’s seemingly unending win streak, the daunting task of bringing UST back at the top of the UAAP  lies on the hands of the two-time MVP. Every shot, every rebound, every block that she’ll make will be aimed towards that coveted trophy, not just for herself, but for her team.

Grace won’t be alone in the title chase, though. Her impact in UST’s basketball program goes beyond what the stat sheet shows. Whether in practice or in a UAAP game, she pushes everyone to be a better player. “Grace always tells us to play strong, to play hard.” Karla exclaimed. Being a frontcourt player herself, she always bang bodies with Grace in practice. “I learn a lot from her during practices. Just her talent level, di ako nakakatapat ng ganyan before. She helps me improve my game,” she added.

The Tigresses’ vastly improved play is evident on their team performance this year. They ended the elimination round with an 11-3 record, three wins more compared to last season. They did so by being the second-best team in the league in field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists. They also allowed the second-lowest shooting rate for their opponents. They’re on the top half of the league in most of the stats.

The pressure on Grace will continue to grow as her team goes deeper into the Final Four. Her second MVP award was more than just a step towards her aspirations of bringing home a title to España. All eyes will be on her with every shot, every rebound, every block that she’ll make.

She won’t be alone though, as she will be supported by the effort of the other four Tigresses on the floor, the rowdy celebration of her teammates on the bench, the loud cheers of her fellow Thomasians screaming to their hearts’ content, the beats from YJ’s drums that resonate across every corner of the gymnasium, the unending love of a proud basketball community that wholeheartedly chants “Go USTe” in every chance it gets.

She won’t be alone, for in UST she found her second home.