At the conclusion of NCAA Season 98, expectations were higher than they ever were in College of Saint Benilde’s history in the NCAA.
Once an insignificant laughing stock that ended year after year at the bottom of the standings, Benildeans were shown a rare glimpse of hope.
Benilde went toe-to-toe against then two-time defending champion Colegio de San Juan de Letran, falling short of a championship after three games.
Entering Season 99, fans and coaches alike knew the Blazers were a force to be reckoned with.
While their Finals opponents lost countless seniors, the Green and White retained its core around reigning MVP Will Gozum, three-level scorer Miguel Oczon, lead guards Robi Nayve and Prince Carlos, and the lengthy frontcourt duo of Miggy Corteza and Mark Sangco.
However, despite the Blazers’ menacingly talented lineup, they entered the season looking erratic and out of sorts.
They dropped three of their first four games, going 1-3 to open the season looking like a shell of their dominant Season 98 selves.
Eventually, they would turn their season around and get themselves back into the final four picture. Still, the Benilde squad remained a hit-or-miss throughout the season.
Some days they would systematically blow teams out with their heavy arsenal of offensive weapons. Other afternoons, they would turn the ball over countless times while making the rim look like it had a lid on it.
A big factor in its unreliable play was the inconsistent performances and statistical regression of some of its main guys.
Benilde’s starting backcourt of Carlos and Oczon both struggled to shoot the ball efficiently.
Carlos connected on only 21.54-percent of his shots from deep and 33.1-percent overall.
Though Oczon led the team in scoring, his 35.24-percent shooting from the field was significantly less efficient compared to other go-to guys of NCAA contenders like Jacob Cortez or Clint Escamis.
Making matters worse for Benilde, reigning MVP Gozum struggled to get himself going throughout the season.
After averaging 16.73 points and 9.41 rebounds on 53.14-percent shooting from the field and 33.33-percent from three, the 6-foot-4 bruiser’s numbers dropped to just 12.76 points and 6.41 rebounds on 44.27-percent shooting overall and 15.15-percent shooting from deep.
While some days Gozum’s MVP form emerged like in his 27-point performance against Jose Rizal University in the second round, others he looked checked out. Take, for example, his two points, zero rebounds, and three turnovers outing against Arellano University in round one.
The struggles from Benilde’s stars ultimately led to its demise in the final four.
Mapua University ended the Blazers’ season early with a 78-67 beating, sending seniors like Gozum, Carlos, Corteza, and Nayve to their departure from the team without a championship in hand.
Despite the struggles of the players, it was head coach Charles Tiu who shouldered the blame for Benilde’s lost season. The second-year head coach put it on himself for falling short of the gold.
“Obviously to me, I consider it a failure on my part.
“My goal straight up was to win the championship. I felt we had a great chance, I still feel we have a really good team, the best pieces, but it falls on me. I don’t think I did a great job this year to get them to play to their potential so I told them I’m the one to blame for this, but that’s basketball for you,” admitted Tiu.
Tiu carried on by explaining that the shooting woes throughout the season did play a factor, but it was ultimately on all of them as a team to overcome that.
“Sometimes when you can’t make shots you can’t win games. We had a lot of chances this season, very makeable shots that we can’t hit, and for some reason, our opponents are making tough shots, but that’s basketball. We just have to find a way to get better,” he continued.
Despite the Blazers’ shortcomings, Tiu gave credit to his squad, especially the graduating players, for ultimately sparking change in the culture of Benilde and paving the path to success even if they did not get to see where the path ends.
“I did tell the guys though you know, to make the Final Four is an achievement. Let’s not forget Benilde, before the last two years where did Benilde come from? For 20 years we never made the Final Four, they were always the laughing stock, so I told the guys I was proud that they somehow slowly changed the culture of Benilde,” said Tiu.
“To make it to the Final Four is not an easy thing, it’s so competitive here.”