The year was 2001.There was widespread clamor for a so-called “war onterrorism” as the United States was still reeling from the aftermath of theSeptember 11 attacks.
While fear lorded over, things were a little sedate inside DLSU. Everyone was bellowing for the Green Archers to go “four-ward.” The squad had just won their first grand slam (second in the eyes of Lasallians, alluding to the controversial 1991 season) under Coach Franz Pumaren, but they did not bask in their laurels for long because other squads also staked their claimed on the basketball crown.
Among them was the Joel Banal-mentored Ateneo Blue Eagles. In the forefront of this scheme were Blue Eagles banner player Enrico Villanueva, Season MVP Rich Alvarez, Paolo Bugia, Larry Fonacier, Magnum Membrere and a young LA Tenorio.
New archers, same quiver
The Taft-based quintet lost then team captain Mon Jose, court general Mac Cuan, and slotman Raymond Magsumbol to graduation. They did have a Ren-Ren Ritualo, though, who had exhausted all but one of his playing years as a college skipper, a prolific quarterback in sophomore Mike Cortez, a crop of steady holdovers like Adonis Sta. Maria, Willy Wilson, and BJ Manalo, plus rookies like Joseph Yeo, Carlo Sharma, and Rookie of the Year Mac-Mac Cardona.
It was a match-up two years in the making. Ateneo had a twice-to-beat advantage against the FEU Tamaraws the previous year. However, when the Eagles trampled the Morayta overachievers, the dream Ateneo-La Salle Finals was sawed in half.
Pumaren then said, “It was supposed to be a blockbuster [playing against Ateneo in the Finals], and it will be a good match-up because a lot of people have been saying that we can’t win against Ateneo in the Finals. Pero hinintay namin, hindi naman dumating. (We waited for it, but it never came.)”
Banal apparently heard him, and thus labored to steer the Katipunan-based squad to meet with the Archers in the Last Dance. The
blockbuster was set.
Prior to this, the squads have met in the Finals only thrice in the history of both the UAAP and the NCAA: in 1938, 1958 and 1989. Defeat was a sour taste that had been lingering with the Green-and-Whites for quite some time as Ateneo managed to win the last two encounters of the three; this was the perfect time for redemption.
The opener of the high-profile series placed the Archers at the threshold of their fourth crown. They nipped the Eagles, 74-68, September 27 at the Big Dome. The Eagles had a visegrip on the match and looked poised to deal a severe blow to La Salle’s four-peat chances.
Fortunately, the triumvirate of Cardona, Ritualo and Cortez banged in a combined 50 of their 74 to outgun the Katipunan-based dribblers, who banked on the tandem of Alvarez and Tenorio.
Thursday, October 4, was supposed to be La Salle’s date with destiny, but the Eagles had other plans. Villanueva strapped the Blue-and- White on his back and barreled his way to 22 points and 14 rebounds to force a rubber match for the title. Despite not having won against the Archers in the elimination round, the Eagles effaced those memories by whitewashing the Archers, 76-72.
To further compound the woes of the four-peat seeking squad, slotmen Manny Ramos and Mike Gavino were not be able to suit up for the deciding game due to injuries. Most of the rebounding chores as well as the herculean task of guarding Villanueva was left to rookie center Carlo Sharma, who himself served a onegame suspension in Game 2 which paved the way for Villanueva’s monster double-double.
While bedlam was all but ready to ensue in Katipunan, doubt was gingerly worming its way towards Taft Avenue.
Going for four
La Salle enjoyed an eight-point lead early in the last of the four-peat season and was accused of being overconfident. The Green-clad gallery of fans was lambasted for singing Buttercup when the outcome of the game been far from decided.
“Keep the Faith,” read the headline from the October 12, 2001 issue of The LaSallian.
It was not exactly the easiest thing to do, especially for a team reeling from injuries and had a Ritualo who shot an atrocious 3-of-12 from three-point country during Game 2.
October 16, 2001. The Araneta Coliseum, a place which had been littered with the carcasses of teams who had sought in vain to carve their niches in hoops history, bore witness to yet another squad who dared to achieve a rare feat.
This squad, however, made sure that they would be remembered not merely as bridesmaids in years past, but as a team which casted its shadow over the rest of the league for four consecutive years.
Six-footer rookie Carlo Sharma, who came back from his one-game suspension, erupted for 22 points, and corralled 14 boards to propel the Archers to a 93-88 victory. More than that, he hounded Villanueva for the entire game as he mustered a paltry five points.
The Taft-based quintet withstood a 30-point explosion from Tenorio and had taken a 91-84 lead before Cortez showed the Blue-and-White squad the exit door through a runaway lay-up that pegged the Archers’ score.
“This season has been a stormy one, a very rocky one,” Coach Franz Pumaren asseverated in the midst of the revelry. The fourth one indeed did not come easy, not by a long shot.
After the trials and tribulations undergone by these Archers, there’s no denying it: the Great Leap “Four-ward” has been made.