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Coach Eric: “We found our identity with defense”

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“Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” It’s an old maxim that has its origins in the lore of American Football, but it couldn’t be any truer for the newly-crowned UAAP Season 77 men’s basketball champions, the National University Bulldogs.

“We had to find a way to win, and during summer, we really tried to look for an identity. And true enough, we found our identity with defense,” said the NU head coach at last night’s post-game press conference.

“We knew that FEU would come out really aggressive in this game; we felt in the second game hindi sila aggressive, maybe they felt the pressure of winning it all, so I told the team we have to be ready to match that intensity, we just have to do what we do. We can not be somebody else for one game. Kung ano yung sinimulan natin, how we were able to get to this position we will do the same thing and I think that’s our calling card eh— defence lang talaga eh. I think this team showed that you can have teamwork in defense, it’s not only on offense but also on defence.”

The Bulldogs finished the elimination round with the best defense in the league, allowing their opponents to only 57.4 points per game. But it was the Bulldogs four victories over the basket-savvy first seed Ateneo that stand as the greatest testament to how effective the Bulldogs’ newfound slant towards defense was. Bo Perasol’s Blue Eagles were held to an average of 65.75 points per game in four outings with the Bulldogs–well below their elimination round average of 75.9 a game.

“I think the style of basketball that we showed to today is really centered on the team. It’s not on any individual. We we’re able to share the ball on offense. Hindi mo talaga alam sino puputok sa mga players. Our bench really stepped-up today. More than anything, ang nakikita ko lang is pwede ka pala magkaroon ng teamwork sa defense. The type of defense that we play, hindi mo magagawa yan pag hindi kayo one. The players took pride in that, kasi most of the teams gusto nilang umi-score eh. They win with offense, but this team loves to play defense,” said Coach Eric at the presscon when asked about whether the people’s mindset about basketball may have changed after their championship run.

Yesterday’s 75-59 game three victory over the Far Eastern University Tamaraws, in game three is something sports fans in the Philippines won’t easily forget. For some NU, a team whose previous championship came in the 1950s and who spent a good portion of the new millennium as cellar dwellers, defeating FEU, 19-time men’s basketball champions and one of the league’s traditional powerhouses in back-to-back blowout games, may just as well signal the start of a new era in college hoops.

Coach Eric isn’t a stranger when it comes to ending championship droughts. He was part of the 1986 UP Fighting Maroon squad that bagged the title for State U for the first time in almost fifty years.

Prior to game three  members of the press were able to contact Nestor Sapida, a member of the 1954 NU squad, the last team to win the UAAP men’s basketball championship before the start of the program’s sixty-year drought. The 78-year old Sapida was present at the game.

“Well, naka inspire yun,” said Coach Eric at the press conference when asked about Sapida’s presence at game three. “Nagsalita siya kanina before the game. Sabi niya na kailangan may tapang tayo. This type of game, kailangan pakita natin sa kanila na ang NU di bibigay and so he gave his talk. Ang sarap ng feeling makakita ka ng isang player coming from that historical championship in the 1950s.”

Led by two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks, the Bulldogs had their best elimination round finish in decades last year, finishing at the top of the league at 10-4, but were eliminated in two games by the fourth-seeded UST Growling Tigers.

“Itong championship na ito, it’s not really about me, it’s about the players. Nakita ko yung hirap ng team na ‘to, especially yung last year, yung mga players na naka-experience nung last year, I felt bad for them. Everybody was crying. I could still remember yung scene na yun sa dug-out, they were really dejected. Dalawa lang ang mangyayari roon eh, either it makes or breaks the team. But fortunately for us, it made the team tougher and parang naging hungry sila, like sila Gelo(Alolino), si Glenn(Khobuntin), lahat ng naka-experience noon. I’m sure all of them look back to that scene, and sabi nila di na mauulit yan, di na natin papayagan maulit yan. Again, mga adversities na dinaanan ng team na ito made the team tougher; stronger.”

Lucky for NU, their tower of power is here to stay for the next two seasons. Alfred Aroga, the 6’7 center from Cameroon, was the biggest star on the court yesterday. The eventual Finals MVP scored 24 points, brought down 18 boards, and had 2 blocks in game three, perhaps his most stellar performance this season. He averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds for the finals series.

“Alfred stays with me, he’s like a son to me. Yesterday, we talked a lot, he said “coach, I’m a little nervous,” I said “you know don’t worry about tomorrow, just relax, I got your back.” Today, after breakfast I saw him and said “how are you feeling?” He said “Coach, I’m okay.” And I told him “Alfred you’re going to play your best game this season, itong game na ito,” and true enough he really played his best. If you look at the stats, this is his best game offensively. All throughout the season he just bailed us out with his defense, with his free throws, but you know he always struggled on offense. Di pa niya nakukuha yung bearing niya. And what a time to step up big for us.”

NU basketball will have to face uncertainty once more. Among this year’s batch of graduates are forwards Troy Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin, two of the most important pieces from this year’s campaign. Coach Eric however remains optimistic about next season.

“Lahat ng malaki namin mawawala, so butas na butas kami. We don’t know sino ipapalit namin. Definitely, we’re going to be less competitive as this year. But who knows? This year yun din ang akala namin, pupulutin lang kami sa kangkungan this year, so you’ll never know, maybe another new player would step up again. I think for the school it’s a breakthrough eh. Just like Ateneo and La Salle, when they win championships it’s really a breakthrough, and I hope this is just the start for NU. Sana the culture should be there na and the winning condition is there, and that we would be able to follow through; may continuity.”

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