Finally. After sixty years, the National University Bulldogs are men’s basketball champions once more. Led by the ever-dominant Alfred Aroga, the Bulldogs finally put an end to one of the longest championship droughts in Philippine basketball, routing the Far Eastern University Tamaraws, 75-59, bagging their first men’s basketball title since 1954 and denying the Tamaraws their 20th overall, Wednesday afternoon at the Araneta Coliseum.
Finals MVP Alfred Aroga, the big man from Cameroon, had 24 points, 18 rebounds, and 2 blocks for the Bulldogs, dominated both ends of the court to rake in point after point for NU while denying the Tamaraws’ the easy inside look.
The first quarter opened to a strong showing from the Tamaraws, who, led by Mike Tolomia managed to build an 11-5 edge in the first five minutes. The Bulldogs however eventually pulled together, kicking to life their feared defensive lockdown to force an 11-11 tie in the next three minutes. Troy Rosario gave the Bulldogs their first taste of the lead, 15-14, with a minute and a half left on the quarter, but Mike Tolomia fired back on the other end to take back the lead, 16-15. A basket from Kyle Neypes and a three-point conversion off a rare drive to the basket from Alfred Aroga gave NU a 20-16 edge in the next thirty seconds. At the end of the first, the lead remained with the Bulldogs, 20-18.
The Bulldogs opened the second quarter with another staggering display of power from Alfred Aroga, who dominated at both ends of the court to lead the Bulldogs in a 6-0 run in the first three minutes. Though the Tamaraws eventually managed to find a way through the Bulldogs’ seemingly unbreakable inside wall, the cagers of Morayta managed to put in a dismal eight points in the quarter. At the half, the Bulldogs stayed ahead, 30-26. Leading NU was Alfred Aroga, who managed to drill 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks in the first half alone. Mike Tolomia meanwhile was the Tamaraws’ best asset for the first half, with 13 points, 11 of which were scored in the first quarter.
The third quarter opened to a shootout between Aroga and FEU leading scorer Mac Belo, finally finding his touch with the ball after a quiet first half. After a trade of baskets from both squads, a five-point explosion from rookie Rev Diputado gave the Bulldogs the double-digit lead, 49-35, with under three minutes left on the clock. A 6-0 rally from the Tamaraws trimmed the lead to single digits, 49-41, but the fire was immediately put out by a triple from Jjay Alejandro. At the end of the third quarter, the Bulldogs remained ahead of the race, 55-44.
The fourth quarter however had no good news in store for the Tamaraws. The Tams continued to struggle to put up easy shots against the Bulldogs, and even a renewed fight from top guns Tolomia and Belo were not enough to put a stop to the Bulldogs’ seemingly unstoppable push. Entering the final two minutes, the Bulldogs held on to the lead, 68-54. Back-to-back baskets from Glenn Khobuntin added four more markers to the Bulldogs’ edge, 72-57. The final two minutes saw the Tamaraws do everything expected in a last minute drive, but time was on the Bulldogs side. Still up by double digits and clock ticking down, Eric Altamirano’s boys erupted into celebration on the court, with the mammoth NU crowd filling the coliseum with their cheers. In the next few minutes, they became the first Bulldogs to lift up the UAAP men’s basketball trophy in sixty years.
Gelo Alolino contributed 12 points to the NU cause, while Glenn Khobuntin and Jjay Alejandro had 10 points apiece. Troy Rosario, the Most Improved Player of the season and game two’s hero was held to six points in his last performance as a Bulldog.
Mike Tolomia had 23 points, 3 assists, and 5 steals for the Tamaraws. Mythical Five member Mac Belo, who led the Tamaraws in the final four had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
“We lost a lot of players. Not only Bobby Ray(Parks), but also Mbe, Villamor, Javillonar,” said NU head coach Eric Altamirano. “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.”
The road to the championship
At the start of the season, the Bulldogs faced uncertainty, playing without two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr. and key players Jean Mbe and Jeff Javillonar, who had led them to the final four in the previous year. The Tamaraws meanwhile were considered one of the favorites to make the final four, having much of their core left intact despite losing former MVPs Terrence Romeo and R.R Garcia. The Bulldogs finished first in last year’s elimination round, but were eliminated by the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the final four.
The Tamaraws finished second at 10-4, after prevailing in a play-off for the no.2 over the De La Sale Green Archers, who had also finished with a 10-4 record. The Bulldogs on the one hand finished 9-5 at the elimination round, tied for fourth with the UE Red Warriors. The Bulldogs however managed to finally book their final four slot, after surviving a hotly-contested play-off with the Warriors, 51-49.
In the semi-finals, the Bulldogs faced the first-seeded Ateneo Blue Eagles, whom NU had swept in the elimination round. The first-seeds however were in for a shock, as the Bulldogs continued to dominate the Eagles, edging the former five-peat champs in two games.
The second-seeded Tamaraws also had to fight and cleave their way to the finals, beating back the defending champions De La Salle Green Archers in two games. Aroga denying season MVP and Ateneo leading scorer Kiefer Ravena the game-tying basket and Mac Belo’s buzzer-beating three over La Salle to send their respective squads to the finals remain as some of the most memorable moments of the season.
The Tamaraws took game one of the finals, 75-70, but game two went to the Bulldogs, 62-47.
This year also marks the Bulldogs first double-victory in college basketball, the NU Lady Bulldogs having swept the final series against the FEU Lady Tamaraws in their own finals series two weeks back. This is the second straight year both seniors basketball crowns were won by the same school, the De La Salle Archers and Lady Archers having won in last year’s men’s and women’s tournaments.