In every great sports story, there is always that chapter where the protagonists defeat a perennial nemesis to finally seize glory.
For La Salle Green Hills, overcoming San Beda Taytay in the Final Four of the NCAA Season 93 Juniors Basketball Championship provided the signs that it was finally their year.
Key members of the squad that finally pulled it off – coach Marvin Bienvenida, Joel Cagulangan, Inand Fornillos, and Jacob Lao – discussed the legendary feat with hosts Charles Tiu, Paolo Layug, and Anton Altamirano in Tiebreaker Vods’ Coaches Unfiltered, presented by SMART.
“Kasi coach (Paolo Layug), nung summer pa lang, we were preparing for San Beda talaga, not Mapua. We had our eyes on San Beda talaga, so I guess ‘yun na ‘yung chance namin na ma-prove sa sarili namin na kaya rin pala namin silang talunin,” said Lao.
Back when LSGH made the finals in Seasons 87 and 89 under coach John Flores, San Beda was just too strong in the end. The likes of Thomas Torres, Ritchie Villaruz, and Andre Paras were overpowered in heartbreaking fashion by Francis Abarcar and Arvin Tolentino back in the 2011 edition, despite winning game one of their series.
Two years later, the combined strengths of Kobe Paras and Prince Rivero were not enough to overcome Tolentino, Andrei Caracut, and Ranbill Tongco. San Beda finished that campaign undefeated.
With the Greenies and Red Cubs finishing in fourth and first place respectively at the end of the elimination round, the Ortigas-based school had to do something that proved to be elusive for its past teams – beat San Beda in the post-season.
“We had a little confidence going to that Final Four before meeting them because first round and second round, we were able to beat them eh. So we got momentum from that,” said Bienvenida.
“Nung first game it was more of, parang… I don’t know, it was completely controlled ‘yung game pero come to that knockout… I remember during jump ball pa lang, ito ‘yung knockout na sabi ko ‘Putek, parang iba yung gising ng San Beda ngayon.’ Parang desidido sila.”
LSGH managed to beat San Beda in the first match of their series, 83-72, anchored by Cagulangan’s 27 points and Joshua David’s 12 rebounds. However, the real test was yet to come and Bienvenida knew it.
“Nakikita ko pa lang, ino-obserbahan ko si Evan (Nelle) during jump ball, sinabihan ko si Maimai. Tapos si Evan was starting to impose something already na alam ko tinititigan ka talaga ni Evan noon. Hindi siya tumitingin sa jump ball, talagang kay Maimai lang. True enough, Evan that time had a great game. He tried carrying his team that lasted for three overtimes.”
Cagulangan and Nelle were two of the best point guards at that time at the high school level. The two prodigies led their teams valiantly in that series, and their paths would cross years later when the latter transferred to De La Salle University after the former bolted to the University of the Philippines under his father’s wishes.
“Kahit sinusuntok ako nun kasi ganon ‘yung laro ni Evan,” said Cagulangan.
“Si Evan kasi ‘pag naglalaro kami, parang gusto niya pumasok sa ulo ko eh, nilalaro niya ‘yung ulo ko. Tapos si Coach Marvin naman sabi niya, ‘Maimai, ‘wag mong papatulan ‘yan ha.’ Kasi ‘pag pinatulan ko ‘yun, bibigyan ko talaga nang mahigpit ‘yun. Hindi pwedeng hindi ako makakabawi, hindi ako papayag eh. Sabi naman ni coach, ‘Huwag Mai, sayang ‘yung game mo.'”
Cagulangan and Nelle traded shot after shot in what was one of the greatest games in the history of the NCAA Juniors Division. But rivalries are not built overnight, and theirs was founded during pre-season of that year.
“’Yung series na ‘yun, parang simula nung summer, dala-dala ko na ‘yun papuntang semis. Kasi may game kami, sa Fr. Martin’s yata, tinambakan tayo nila tapos homecourt pa nila. So parang napahiya talaga kami. Tapos nung season, doon kami bumawi nung tinalo namin sila nung both rounds,” explained the Butuan native.
“Pagdating ng semis, ‘yun na, parang si Evan Nelle parang kakagatin ka na eh. ‘Yung tingin niya sa’yo, sabi niya sa akin nung halftime… Tinitigan niya ako sa mukha, sabi niya, ‘Hindi talaga kayo mananalo eh no?’ ‘Yun sabi niya sa akin.”
It was a grueling contest for both players, as they clocked in heavy minutes for their teams. Eventually, Cagulangan who led his squad to a 110-108 victory after three overtime periods. The former Green Archer produced 29 points and nine assists, while the erstwhile Red Lion chipped in 26 points and eight assists.
“Sabi ko naman, kaya nga eh, hindi talaga eh. Kasi sobrang ganda ng laban. Lahat ng players ng San Beda palaban, lahat ng kakampi ko palaban. Pero doon talaga dumating sa isip ko na hindi mo kailangan mag-give up Mai, kasi lahat na nagca-cramps eh,” said the former NCAA Juniors MVP.
“Si Joshua David naaawa na ako, ayaw na maglaro sa sobrang cramps niya. Siguro ‘yung series na ‘yun, puso lang talaga nagdaig sa isipan ko eh.”
Come the final buzzer, the green gallery erupted with joy as the Greenies finally overcame their perennial nemesis. After finally leading his alma mater across the finish line, Bienvenida was in tears because of the enormity of what his boys, dead-exhausted after giving everything on the floor, had achieved.
With LSGH finally conquering San Beda in the post-season, the stars eventually aligned for the Greenies. They prevailed over the Mapua Red Robins to annex the school’s maiden title in the NCAA, and the Green and White’s first juniors crown after 52 years in the said league after De La Salle College last won it in 1955.