The year was 2002. The internet was still dial-up, cassette tapes were still a thing, and the phone everyone wanted was a Nokia 3310. The boy bands that people liked were from the western hemisphere. In basketball, Shaq and Kobe just steered the Lakers to their third straight title, cementing the legacy of Los Angeles as one of the winningest teams in the NBA.
Here in the Philippines, there was also a dynasty, the De La Salle Green Archers.
The DLSU Green Archers were the Philippines’ premier collegiate team. After a string of runner-up finishes in the mid 90s, they finally got over the hump in 1998 where Coach Franz Pumaren started their dynasty. Nobody had an answer to the Pumaren full-court press, and they had the best players in the country.
Ateneo meanwhile, had failed to capture the same dominance they had in the NCAA. after winning back-to-back titles in 1987-88, the Blue Eagles managed to stay in the middle of the pack or worse, the cellar of the league. The fans can be put into a section of the venue, save for the rivalry game.
While Ateneo-La Salle games were just as a big thing back then, it was not the draw that it is now. The rivalry reignited when supposed Ateneo basketball savior BJ Manalo took his talents to Taft Avenue. It was also the time that Ateneo started seriously recruiting players, and putting a good system in place.
In 2001, Ateneo and La Salle squared off in the finals for the first time since 1988. The series went to three games, and unlikely players such as then-Rookie LA Tenorio dropped 30 points in Game 3 and senior big man Carlo Sharma had a breakout game that ultimately brought their fourth straight title.
In Season 65, La Salle paraded a practically invincible team. They had a potent backcourt in captain Mike Cortez and the previous season’s rookie of the year Mark Cardona. They had tall, strong forwards in Manny Ramos and Mika Vainio. Carlo Sharma patrolled the paint. They also boasted of a deep bench with BJ Manalo, Joseph Yeo, and Adonis Sta. Maria. They steamrolled through the competition en route to an undefeated 13-0 record with just one game left. This was not to say that they were not tested. Out of the 13 games won by the Green Archers, five of them were won with a seven-point margin or below. A notable one was against the UST Growling Tigers, which went to overtime before La Salle survived 91-89. Some teams managed to keep it close, but La Salle found ways to win in the end.
Ateneo had a quick and deadly back court duo in LA Tenorio and Larry Fonacier. Wesley Gonzales was a do-it-all forward back after a one year sabbatical. Two-time MVP Rich Alvarez and team captain Enrico Villanueva manned the post. Their substitutes were no slouches, as the bench consisted of Epok Quimpo, Gec Chia, Sonny Tadeo, and Andrew Cruz. Unlike La Salle, they struggled in the mid season, toting a 4-5 record. To make matters worse, they would lose LA Tenorio due to a hand injury that happened in practice. Somehow, they managed to rally and win their next four games. They would eventually tie with UE and UST, creating a logjam at the second to fourth spot.
One game in the elimination was left, and it seemed only right that the bitter rivals would face each other for history. Should La Salle win, they would sweep the elimination round and let the other three teams maul each other while the Green Archers waited for the carcasses of who was left. Should Ateneo win, there would be a Final Four and they will await the result of the UE-UST game the next day to determine who they face.
History was on the side of the Green Archers who won their match-up against the Blue Eagles in the first round 70-60. Rich Alvarez was suspended that game after a retroactive decision by the board due to an alleged closed-fist punch on Adamson’s Jojo Hate the game prior.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the final game and rightfully so. La Sallians relished in being on the cusp of history; going straight to the finals to win a fifth straight title, the most number of consecutive titles without a co-champion. Ateneo wanted to play the spoiler’s role, as well as try to get a good seeding in the Final Four. Whichever side you cheered for, you can feel the magnitude and the intensity of the game at hand.
The first quarter started off as expected, with La Salle firmly in the driver’s seat 6-0. Ateneo missed a ton of shots, even the ones that were uncontested. Epok Quimpo, a backup guard who stepped up in Tenorio’s absence, opened up the scoring for the Blue Eagles with a top of the key three with 5:40 left. This was the start of a 13-0 run, with Wesley Gonzales chipping in five points. La Salle would not score until 3:18 left in the quarter, via an open Mike Cortez three. Rich Alvarez would quickly silence the La Salle crowd with a one handed slam. The quarter would end 22-15, in favor of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
The two teams would trade baskets with each other, but the Blue Eagles would extend their lead to nine with a Gec Chia three, 32-23 with 3:50 left in the first half. At this point, the blue side of the coliseum was loud. At this moment, they believed. The Green Archers are mortal after all. They must’ve forgotten why La Salle was undefeated at this point in the tournament, as they unleashed an 8-1 run that brought the lead down to two in the last two minutes of the half. The Blue Eagles would keep that lead heading into halftime 36-34, but there was a certain fear. The Green Archers had a habit of erasing bigger leads and erecting one of their own.
As if the game was not dramatic enough, the halftime performance of the Blue Babble Battalion plucked at the heartstrings of the crowd. Before finishing their performance, the Grade School Babble ran down the court along with two men who were towering everybody else on that court. Center Paolo Bugia and shooting guard Magnum Membrere, vital cogs of the previous season’s team but were out due to injuries, joined the Battalion in cheering Blue Eagle Spelling. This was a message that if Ateneo were to lose, they would go down swinging.
The third quarter saw the Green Archers tighten up their already suffocating defense, denying Ateneo of any open looks. The Blue Eagles continued to run their triangle offense, trying to keep in step with La Salle. It was a nip-and-tuck affair, with the score tied at 43 halfway through the quarter. Just when it seemed like it would go down the wire, Ateneo unloaded a 13-3 run at the end of the quarter, while playing stellar defense. All three points scored by La Salle during this stretch came from free throws.
The quarter ended with Ateneo up by 10, 56-46. For coach Joel Banal and his wards, they knew that this lead was nowhere near safe given who they are up against.
Everybody inside the Araneta Coliseum expected that big La Salle endgame run. After all, these Green Archers were inevitable. Four consecutive titles, 13 straight games, en route to the finals to try for a fifth straight title. They should have made a run.
The thing was, the run never came.
The Green Archers would not score until less than seven minutes left in the game, courtesy of an open Mike Cortez three. But by then, they were already buried under a 15 point hole. A BJ Manalo layup after a steal sliced on the lead a little more, but Ateneo had a counter 5-0 run of their own to put the score at 69-51 halfway through the fourth. Franz Pumaren sat Mike Cortez, his captain and best player, with 3:30 left. Almost immediately after that, Rich Alvarez rose up for a slam as if to say “GAME OVER”.
As the late Rolly Manlapaz bellowed “LAST TWO MINUTES”, the white flag was already up for La Salle. They were simply reducing the lead at this point. A last ditch Mac Cardona three ended the game 76-63 with Ateneo winning the game. Wesley Gonzales, viewed by then-coach Joe Lipa as a headcase the season prior, anchored the Ateneo onslaught, with a stat line of 17 points, six rebounds, two assists, and one block. One of the lasting images of this game would be of an Atenean beaming, with 13-1 painted across his cheek. The other one is a group of Ateneans holding up a homemade 13-1 sign, proof that little guys can beat giants.
Despite this loss, La Salle sat atop the Final Four standings. UE beat UST the next day and despite having identical records with Ateneo, they got the second seed and twice to beat advantage having won both their elimination round matchups. La Salle handily dispatched UST in one game, while Ateneo weathered a twice-to-beat disadvantage and it took a Gec Chia last second miracle to advance to the finals.
We all know what happened after.