Everyone has their own story of heartbreaks. Breakups, personal regrets, missed chances, you name it. Everybody has their own stories to tell. The thing is you can’t stop it. It’s like a natural phenomenon and eventually, there will be times that no matter how hard we try we will still end up on the tail end of success and happiness.

Your heart is broken. You mend your broken heart. You move on. That’s life.

And basketball, well, be careful loving this sport. Because you’ll never know how much heartbreak it can cause you.

In the UAAP, for instance, ask every athlete and coach of non-champion teams on what their story of heartbreak is, they will probably say it is the sound of the final buzzer that marks the end of another season sans the title of being the best collegiate basketball team in the country. This is their ultimate heartbreak as basketball athletes. But this is also what drives them. This usually becomes their primary motivation come next year to perform better and this is the fuel of fire behind every players’ “Babawi kami next season” cliché taglines.

The overlooked story, however, is the agony and pain that their fellow schoolmates and fans feel once that final buzzer of defeat stings thru their ears.

And for Cherilyn, a Thomasian alumnus and a die-hard UST Growling Tigers supporter, her tale of basketball heartbreak came about in the Season 76 of the UAAP. It was UST and DLSU grinding it out in the pivotal Game 3 of the Finals. What transpired is one of the most memorable games not only for UST and DLSU fans but also in the history of the UAAP finals.

THE BUILD UP

Coming into season 76, the UST Growling Tigers had unfinished business after failing to covet the championship in the previous season against the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Anchored by King Tiger Jeric Teng, promising stalwarts Kevin Ferrer and Aljon Mariano who were ready to take over the league, and of course the resident foreign student athlete Karim Abdul, the Growling Tigers were once again ready to defend the fort for España.

De La Salle, on the other hand, was filled with expectations. After a disappointing Final Four exit, the Green Archers revamped their chieftainship from the bench as then PBA Assistant Coach Juno Sauler was appointed as the new head coach for La Salle. His team was composed of sophomore star Jeron Teng, the bulky frontline of Norbert Torres and Arnold Van Opstal, savvy shooting guard Almond Vosotros, and solid point guards in Thomas Torres and LA Revilla.

Entering the Finals series, the Tigers and Archers have endured different warpaths for their awaited meeting. UST was the fourth seed at the end of the eliminations with a steady record of 8-6 and has gone through hell or high water as they needed to win 6 of their last 7 games including three elimination games (their lone loss coming from none other than DLSU) with the last two wins coming from an incredible dispatch of the then first seed Ray Ray Parks led National University Bulldogs and becoming the first fourth-seeded team in the Final Four era to reach the Finals while La Salle finished the eliminations with an impressive 10-4 record good enough for 2ndseed and easily worked out the FEU Tamaraws in the Final Four and was riding a league-best nine-game winning streak before Game 1 of the Finals.

Of course, not every Finals matchup would be complete without a compelling storyline to follow. And for this series, there was no other bigger headline than the sibling rivalry of the Teng brothers: Jeric and Jeron.

Photo Credit: Jerome Ascano, SPIN.ph

At the time, the older Jeric Teng was at the peak of his UAAP career. Playing in his last season, Jeric was already heralded as King Tiger and was the driving force of UST in their miraculous Finals run. Meanwhile, Jeron was only on his second playing year and was groomed to be the next great Archer.

What made the dynamic of their rivalry so enthralling is their contrast of playing style. Jeric relied mostly on his sweet perimeter shooting and much like a certain “Mamba”, often getting to his post-up game to set up his patented turnaround or pull up jump shots. Jeron, on the other hand, was a freak of nature when driving to the hoop. With his slashing abilities and swag, similar to that of a “King”, he often used penetrations to either finish under the rim or set up his teammates.

Unlike their counterparts, however, the brotherly war between the Tengs would get to settle their rivalry on a Finals series. And this was just the side dish to the main course for basketball fans.

And so, the stage was set. Three games of all out championship basketball slug fest that ultimately boiled down to one of the most entertaining, storyline-filled, andtalked about do or die game in the history of UAAP.

FILLING IN THE APPETITE: WITNESSING THE FIRST TWO GAMES OF MAYHEM

“Sa semis pa lang, kailangan namin matalo ang NU, which is number one that time, tapos twice to beat pa. Kaya nung finals na, before watching Game 1, sobrang pumped up kami and we really believed that we can win it (championship) because of all the struggles na naconquer ng team.”

This was how Cherilyn describes the emotion and hype surrounding the students of UST as the Growling Tigers prepared for redemption. Redemption after seven years of title drought and a year removed from the decimating loss against Ateneo in the UAAP Season 75 finals.

This was their year. This was the start of making history for them.

Sitting with her friends and classmates in their dormitory, the air of excitement and angst surrounded them as they watch the first game of the series behind their television set. Excitement since they are now two wins away from championship glory and angst because they are facing a tough hurdle ahead.

The first game of the Finals was a game that everyone expected – a neck-to-neck, back and forth affair that saw clutch baskets after clutch baskets in the end game. UST was able to get to a hot start early in the first period and led 21-4 before La Salle making a serious push and made it 54-50 heading into the fourth quarter.

The final canto was a roller coaster ride with both teams hitting big shots after big shots. With the Tiger holding on to a 68-63 lead in the last two minutes, Jason Perkins made a surprising three-pointer only to be answered by a signature post up turnaround jumper by Jeric Teng. After La Salle converted three charities from the free throw line, the Tigers found themselves hanging on a thin thread, leading 70-69 with under a minute to go.

Kevin Ferrer, however, answered the bell for UST as he hit a big-time three from the top of the key. Again, the Archers are quick to answer as Jeron Teng completed an And-1 play to make it 73-72 with 29 ticks left.

A successful stop put La Salle on a chance to win the game but Almond Vosotros missed a WIDE OPEN three-pointer before big man Karim Abdul denied LA Revilla’s putback attempt as the Tiger drew first blood.

Naalala ko talaga noon, sabi namin, medyo tsamba talaga. Buti sumala yung three points ni Almond kung hindi talo pa”, Cherilyn recalled as a collective sigh of relief and an uproar of cheers from their dormitory was heard after the game.‘Sobrang sinwerte lang din talaga.”

She was a freshman at the time. And for her, rooting for the Growling Tigers was something else. It’s like a viral infection that crept into her veins once the buzz and the fandom in the campus set in. Heck, she and her friends were not even basketball fans before.

“As a freshman, parang gusto mo maexperience lahat sa school mo, I can’t even recall how it all started na naging fan ako ng UAAP. I am not even a connoisseur when it comes to basketball because I only watched a few PBA/NBA games on TV.”

Game one, if anything, was a great escape for the Growling Tigers. But the spirits of the Thomasians were not to be bothered by it. Not even a bit.

After all, they were one win away from reclaiming glory and they were all in for it.

I mean. All in.

Wake up s early and fall in line for a general ad ticket? Check.

“We just found ourselves queuing in line at Araneta as early as 5am just to get a single ticket for Game 2.” 

Finals week but heck with it, it’s the UAAP Finals too, right? No problem.

“Kahit exam week basta ang mahalaga, nandoon ako ng live. Habang nakapila ako sa Araneta, I was studying for our finals”

How about a full on “yellow day” for España? Please.

“You’ll see the support of the Thomasian community that time, may mga pa LED or live screen watching in different areas sa UST, main building, plaza mayor, even in the quadricentennial pavilion!”

The spirits were high.

The stars had aligned.

Game 2 was going to be a day of history for the Tigers – to be the firstfourth-seededd team to win the championship.

One win away from glory.

Just one win. And the Cinderella run was complete.

As the game unfolded, however, the Green Archers put on a show and spoiled UST’s grand coronation.

On what was supposed to be a grand celebration for the sea of yellow in attendance, the Green Archers put on a rebounding clinic against the Tigers as they took control of the game early and never looked back, 77-70, and left a sour taste in the mouth of the UST faithfuls.

“Sobrang nakakapang hinayang talaga yung Game 2. Para sa La Salle din talaga kasi halos di maka shoot ang UST. First time ko manood ng live tapos natalo pa. Good thing na hindi pa tapos ang series. May game 3 pa.”

And indeed, having a winner-take-all game was a good thing, no, it was necessary. Because just as the first two games lived up to the hype, what everyone would about to witness come the third game was nothing short of magical.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: THE THRILLS OF GAME THREE

After failing to finish the business in Game 2, UST was back in hunt and survival mode while La Salle looked to fend off their momentous victory heading to the much awaited do or die championship game.

Of the seven days in between Games 2 and 3, there was nothing but pure trepidation from all over the collegiate basketball world.

It’s as if two gigantic behemoths were about to collide. As if everyone was waiting for a massive nuclear like explosion as two super saiyans battled it out to the death.

Game 3 was coined as judgment day. The game that will mark the end the highlight-filled Season 76 of UAAP basketball. And for all the drama that subdued during the course of the season, the battle between the Tigers and Archers all boiled down to a Friday afternoon in the Mall of Asia Arena that nothing could stop a single fan from both teams to witness the game.

Not even a thunderous blessing of sorts from the heavens.

“Naaalala ko noong Game 3, sobrang lakas ng ulan habang nakapila kami sa arena. Parang may bagyo na halos,” recalled Cherilyn.“Pero walang makakapigil talaga sa amin. I just felt ecstatic to watch the game dahil last game at do or die na. Wala nang bukas.”

As the heavy rains started to pour outside, cheers and jeers started to fill in over the 20,000 attendees in the arena as the real storm began to unfold.

Although on this day, everything was different. On this day, every beat of the drum that was once deafening through the ears became in sync with everyone’s heartbeat. On this day, every clap and cheer matters. And everyone watching was all in one voice to support their respective schools.

The game started in a frenetic pace with both teams fully locked in as both teams looked pretty sharp with their execution in the early parts of the game.

UST, however, was able to make use of balanced contributions  from players off the bench and led by as much as 15 points in the third quarter before La Salle answered with a 22-6 run of their own and eventually, the game score found itself tied at 65 apiece in the dying seconds of the game.

And with 24 seconds to go, La Salle got the ball in the hands of Jeron Teng.

Photocredit: Screengrab from Youtube

Isolating at the top of the key, the brewing King Archer stuck his tongue out to his defender, Kevin Ferrer, before making his penetration, only to throw the ball away out of bounds.

From the proud, mocking face of him sticking his tongue to a face of regret, the scenery of Jeron’scostly turnover was basketball entertainment at its finest.

And as if that’s not foolish of a play enough, what transpired in the next play was even worse. Until this day, questions linger about how this play turned out, for both teams.

THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE NATION

After Jeron’s costly turnover, the UST Growling Tigers now had a chance to grab the title and they have six seconds to do so. After enduring so much in the season, they just need one final clean execution and the game is theirs. And with the immense pressure and magnitude of the moment, fans in the arena can’t help but get carried away.

“Before the play, everyone was praying and up on their feet. At that moment, lahat talaga kami di na rin makasigaw sa sobrang kaba.”

Throughout the season, it was Jeric Teng who was the constant closer for the Tigers. Karim Abdul had been on his way in the game while Kevin Ferrer’s outside shooting should always be a viable threat. For Coach Pido Jarencio, options were not an issue. It’s just a matter of execution.

“Personally, I thought that Jeric should take the last shot because he has been carrying the team all season and sobrang magandang ending rin sa career niya if he won us the championship with a game winner,” said Cherilyn.

But what ensued as the ball was inbounded was a play that drew the attention of the entire sports nation. And all for the wrong reasons.

The ball found itself in the hands of Aljon Mariano at the top of the key. And for some reason, he abandoned the design play and asked for a clear out.

There he was, staring down his defender, looking at the game clock.

Never mind the fact that he had struggled all series long with just an awry average of 5.5 points per game.

Never mind the fact that he had not yet made a single field goal in the entire game.

This was his moment of greatness, of Zero to Hero.

3…. Mariano made his initial move, going to his right side.

2…. He then settled for a step back jumper and released his shot.

1…. Ball in the air, championship on the line, everyone was staring, waiting for what’s going to happen.

The buzzer sounded.

And CLANK!

He missed the shot and the game went to overtime.

No. This was not Mariano’s version of THE BUENATHREE. This was not his zero to hero story.

“After the missed shot by Aljon, sobrang inis talaga ang naramdaman ko. Lahat kami sa Gen Ad section sumisigaw ng, ‘Dapat binigay mo kay Jeric!’”

In fact, the shot was the center of talks and attention of the media and the UAAP community for the weeks to come with questions of whether that was the actual play designed and some even going further of accusing Mariano of giving away the game.

To this day, Cherilyn couldn’t help but react intensely whenever she thinks of Mariano’s last shot.

“Tuwing naiisip ko talaga yung tira ni Aljon, naiinis pa rin ako.”

Of course, everything was all in jest now.

“Thinking of it now, without Aljon, it would also be a diff story, without him, maybe, di kami aabot ng finals, or even the semis.”

THE AFTERMATH: CORONATION IN TAFT AND WINNING PRIDE FOR ESPAÑA

The extra five minutes of game 3 was safe to say, also intense. After Mariano’s blunder in regulation, there was no choice for the Thomasians but to stay positive and cheer for their team to the best of their abilities. After all, the game was back to square one.

“Heading into overtime, a brand new set and energized Thomasians na yung nasa arena, wala nang upuan, walang pagod, walang paos, all heart and lungs out, ONE FOR UST.”

With their championship aspirations seemingly like a blinking light bulb, from the elimination games before going to the finals, to the sweet escape in Game 1, to the annihilation in Game 2, to the squashed 15 point lead and to the questionable final play, five more minutes of playing time was the most UST way of completing their season of chasing history. Squeezing every juice left in them and testing their character and pride if they can, somehow, be diamonds under immense pressure.

Both teams exchanged big shot after big shot, defensive stop after defensive stop in the extra period until Almond Vosotros made the game-winning jumper in the final 19 seconds and sealed the grand celebration for La Salle, 71-69.

As the buzzer sounded, emotions quickly spilled all over the arena.

“After the game, some were crying, some were shocked, parang na glued kami sa pwesto, di makapaniwala na it’s over for us.”

The consecutive runner-up finishes for the Growling Tigers felt like a sour and heartwrenching breakup for UST fans. Through good times and especially bad, they stuck with the team throughout the season but the devastating end was all that was remembered, at least for a time.

Because just like a healing process, what truly stuck for the fans was the fight of their team whatever the odds may be.

“I know, with the players and with the Puso, Pride, and Palaban mantra of Coach Pido, we could’ve made it our game. Nevertheless, with this finals series, it really proved that ‘Greatness Never Ends’. Looking in a positive way, thankful na rin na UST end up 2nd. Ang dami rin kasing nangyari, injured si King Tiger, Jeric, getting to semis is always a do or die for us.”

Now, that is WINNING PRIDE.

POSTSCRIPT

This article would not have been possible without the inputs and first hand stories from the featured Cherilyn Perey. She is a longtime friend, an elementary and high school classmate of mine, and graduated in UST last 2017.

The Finals series between DLSU and UST in Season 76 was truly one of the most unforgettable and remarkable series of all time as it is the only series in the past 10 years to have been decided in overtime of game 3.