Loftier expectations awaited National University heading into the UAAP Season 75 men’s basketball wars.
Buoyed by their full domination of the Filoil-Flying V Pre-Season Cup, the Bulldogs were brimming with confidence and coach Eric Altamirano clearly put himself under the spotlight–and the microscope as well.
After finishing fifth last season, the Bulldogs were installed a title contender this year, with reigning MVP Bobby Ray Parks leading their charge anew.
NU, however, suffered yet another up-and-down trek, even pushed to the brink of being eliminated.
But Altamirano kept his faith on the Bulldogs and his charges responded big time.With their season hanging in the balance, National University lived up to its billing by outlasting Far Eastern University 84-81 in overtime, enabling the Bulldogs to punch their semis ticket for the first time in 11 years.
Behind a team led by Froilan Baguion and Jeff Napa, NU last made it to the Final Four in 2001. That’s why for Altamirano and Co., it’s definitely worth the wait.
“This is where we wanted to be at the start of the season,” beamed Altamirano. Had the UAAP Board not overruled the Tamaraws’ 77-75 win last Sept. 2 and forced Sunday’s replay match, the Bulldogs would have been ruing another heart-breaking season.
But NU got a needed break and fully pounced on that, in the process.
“That’s our battlecry coming into this game. ‘Let’s not waste the opportunity.’ God gave us a second chance. We did not expect this game to be replayed, honestly. But since they gave that (replay game) to us, sabi namin ‘wag natin sayangin ito,” Altamirano added.
Despite his team’s idiosyncrasies against the league’s heavyweights, Altamirano, the 1986 Finals MVP while playing for the University of the Philippines, continued to motivate his charges, saying: “I kept reminding the boys that God has a plan for us and He will use those setbacks for us to come back. There’s a purpose for everything.”
True enough it happened–at the most suitable time.
After the Tamaraws dropped a 13-0 bomb bridging the fourth period and overtime that put NU in a 73-79 hole with less than three minutes left, the Bulldogs staged a scorching 11-2 wind-up, with Parks taking charge in the stretch by scoring the team’s last five points–including a go-ahead triple for an 82-79 lead with 31.4 seconds left.
“We’ve had a lot of close games this season and we always crumble in the end. But those things happen for a reason, maybe to make us tougher and learn how to come back. They players showed a lot of courage and perseverance. They showed a lot of heart. We never gave up. We just kept coming,” added Altamirano, who is actually in his second Final Four as a head coach after steering the Fighting Maroons to third in 1996.
With the gutsy win, NU forged a semis clash with second-ranked University of Santo Tomas and Altamirano wants his charges to crave for more, saying: “This is a breakthrough win for us but I’m telling them there’ll be more coming. We’ll use this game as our inspiration going to the Final Four.”