By Gio Gloria
They say the best revenge is success, and in sports, there is no better success than winning a championship, against your age-old rival, and against all odds. Nothing is sweeter than reaping the fruits of one’s hard work and overcoming obstacles, especially when the effort and motivation stems from making up for lost time.
The year before the DLSU Green Archers snatched the UAAP Season 70 Men’s Basketball Championship away from the UE Red Warriors, they were sitting out the entire Season 69 because of fielding two ineligible players in Season 67. It was a textbook example of hitting rock bottom and coming back with a vengeance by going on a Cinderella-esque run all the way to the championship. It wasn’t an easy journey, as La Salle had to dig deep against opponents that had their number throughout the season and in UE’s case, had lorded over the competition up until the finals.
DLSU’s entire sports program was suspended for UAAP Season 69 because of the Men’s Basketball Team’s violations back in 2004. As a result, the squad had to forfeit their wins and return the Season 67 championship, which was then awarded to the FEU Tamaraws. This was the second time La Salle surrendered a championship to FEU due to a technicality, as back in 1991, the Green Archers did not show up to a re-play ordered by the UAAP board. The Tamaraws protested the championship game because La Salle’s Tonyboy Espinosa was still on the court even after fouling out.
A year out of the country’s most popular college basketball league would certainly pose concerns for the recruitment, morale, and basketball shape of the squad, more so when the reasons for the yearlong absence involved infractions. The rest of the UAAP (and perhaps even certain quarters of the Lasallian community), labeled the Green Archers as the “suspended boys” that had to start from scratch, even with a slew of veterans coming back. However, this label and the supposed accompanying problems with it, never reached the La Salle team and so they didn’t play their part.
Preparations for their eventual return were underway as La Salle won the FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup for the second straight year, proof that they weren’t slacking off during their absence from the UAAP.
At the start of Season 70, DLSU was like a bull in a china shop, racing to a 3-0 record with victories over the UP Fighting Maroons, Adamson Soaring Falcons, and FEU. However, they would drop their next two games to then powerhouse UE Red Warriors and to their archrivals, Season 69 runner-up, Ateneo Blue Eagles, before winning their next two games to close out the first round. After dropping their second-round opener to then-defending champion UST Growling Tigers, La Salle would go on a four-game winning streak that set them up to be in prime position for a Final Four slot. However, they dropped their final two games of the elimination round to the Blue Eagles and the Red Warriors, with the latter game coming in overtime.
Those last two losses had crucial implications as both DLSU and ADMU ended the elimination round at 9-5, setting up an extra game to determine the second seed. At that time, the postseason outlook for the Green Archers looked bleak given that they had won only one game against the other members of the Final Four cast (Ateneo, UE, and UST). But as they say, the postseason is a totally different situation altogether.
La Salle’s conquest of Ateneo was perhaps one of the few times where it wasn’t about winning the most games; winning when it mattered made all the difference. The Green Archers outlasted the Blue Eagles, 70-69, in the playoff for the second seed behind the 21 points of JVee Casio. They made the most of their twice-to-beat advantage when they dropped the first game in the semifinals thanks to Chris Tiu’s game-winning layup with 7.3 seconds left. In the deciding game, DLSU left nothing to chance. Their 65-60 victory, which was the largest margin of victory between both rivals in Season 70, booked them the last ticket to the finals, ensuring that their arch rivals who could not win a championship in their absence, would not win one while they were there.
“This is the only time that two is greater than three,” Green Archers head coach Franz Pumaren told The Philippine Daily Inquirer after advancing to the finals. “[Ateneo] beat us three times [this season], but we beat them when it counted the most.”
The Finals had that David and Goliath feel as UE had the more talented lineup on paper. The Red Warriors, which at that time was coached by Franz’s brother Dindo (with current La Salle head coach Derrick serving as a consultant), were a tall and athletic squad led by Mark Borboran and Elmer Espiritu. Marcy Arellano and James Martinez were no slouches themselves, as the former was a steady presence at the point guard spot, while the latter was a lethal shooter. There was also a young player named Paul Lee, who apart from his 12-point outburst in Game 2 of the finals had a more subdued role but in later years, would himself lead UE to the finals once again.
Game 1 saw the Red Warriors utilize their physical abilities on the boards, nearly doubling DLSU’s rebounding output 60-31. The Green Archers overcame this disadvantage with their pressure defense, forcing UE to commit more than 30 turnovers in a nail-biting 64-63 win. Ironically, the game was won on an offensive rebound, with Rico Maierhofer splitting his free throws after attempting to put back a TY Tang miss. Again, for La Salle, the shots dropped when it mattered.
Tang led all scorers with 17 points, with most of his production coming in the fourth quarter. Borboran had 13 points to lead UE and the tying 3-pointer with 34.8 seconds left in the game, while Hans Thiele had a game-high 16 rebounds.
Game 2 was desperation time for the Red Warriors, especially with the Green Archers up 34-23 at halftime. Big shots from Lee and Borboran brought UE back into the game, with Borboran’s basket with 5:34 left in the third quarter trimming DLSU’s lead to just a point, 34-33. La Salle’s veterans responded with timely baskets and composed execution on offense. Martinez and Borboran would hit 3-pointers to ignite one more Red Warrior comeback, but Tang, Villanueva, and Casio willed the Green Archers to a 73-64 victory and the title.
Borboran and Lee led UE with 12 points apiece, but Casio, who led all scorers with 17 points, negated their valiant efforts with huge baskets down the stretch.
Casio and Villanueva took home Co-Finals MVP honors, with Villanueva and Tang also capping off their collegiate careers with a championship.
People often point to the long layoff due to the step-ladder format as an excuse for the Red Warriors’ finals loss but Ateneo’s 16-0 run in UAAP Season 82 proved that this shouldn’t have been a factor. In fact, La Salle had a yearlong layoff themselves because of its suspension so it really boiled down to finishing the job, regardless of how close you think you are to the finish line. Heck, even the late Laker legend Kobe Bryant congratulated DLSU on their victory.
They say champions are made when no one is watching. Nobody was watching La Salle in UAAP Season 69 when they were rethinking, refocusing, and plotting their revenge for the following season. Even with the odds stacked against them, they pulled through with championship poise and quiet confidence in themselves, emerging from a dark place in order to bask in the glory of clinching their seventh UAAP championship.