Posted Oct 18th 2014
Rosario and Khobuntin hoping for a storybook ending to their UAAP careers
By Paolo Mariano Posted Oct 11th 2014
There are two games UAAP players remember fondly: their first and their last.
For Troy Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin, they didn’t want to remember last Wednesday’s game as their last.
The two graduating forwards stepped up when it mattered the most, carrying National University (NU) past Far Eastern University (FEU), 62-47, to pump new life to their already flat-lining collegiate careers.
Rosario and Khobuntin played the game of their lives, finishing with career-highs of 19 and 17 points, respectively. Rosario—sleek and graceful—also grabbed a career-best 14 rebounds, nine from the offensive end. Khobuntin—thuggish and rough-hewn—added five boards and three assists.
They set the tempo early on, storming out of the gates like rabid dogs freed from their collars. They combined for NU’s first 14 points, eating up FEU’s frontline defense like it was an afternoon snack. They never looked back from then on, extending the Finals to a sudden-death Game 3.
It’s quite poetic that the two exiting seniors spearheaded the Bulldogs in yet another winner-take-all. They simply refused to put an end to their farewell tour. At least not yet.
“I just wanted to help my team. I didn’t want it to be my last game. It was the most important game for us,” said Rosario.
“We both knew it could be our last game. That’s why we needed to step up. We needed to show our teammates early on (that we’re not losing this game),” said Khobuntin.
NU head coach Eric Altamirano wasn’t surprised that it was his two graduating players who carried the Bulldogs, improving their immaculate record in do-or-die games this season to 4-0.
“You have to give it to both of them. They really stepped up big-time on both ends (of the floor),” said the mild-mannered tactician. “I don’t need to motivate them anymore. Their last few games are motivation enough. Hopefully, it will be a grand exit for them.”
Calm before the storm
Rosario was restless the night before Wednesday’s game. He slept late and woke up early in the team’s dormitory. He was both nervous and eager, an all-too familiar brew of emotion for anyone about to play in an all-important game.
“Nakahiga ako pero gising ‘yung diwa ko. Nag-alarm ako ng 8:30 (am), pero 7:30 pa lang, gising na ko. Iniisip ko na agad ‘yung mga gagawin ko sa court (I was in bed but my mind was awake. I set my alarm clock at 8:30 am but I was already awake by 7:30. I was already thinking the things I need to do on the court),” said Rosario.
Khobuntin, on the other hand, slept soundly and woke up like it was just a regular day.
They both joined the team breakfast at the NU cafeteria and heard mass afterwards. After a few minutes of idle time, they ate lunch with the squad before heading to the Araneta Coliseum for their 4 pm encounter with the Tamaraws.
“Pagpasok ko pa lang ng venue, makatindig-balahibo na. Naglaban ‘yung excitement tsaka takot na baka last game ko na (When I got into the venue, it was already hair-raising. I was excited yet scared that it could be my last game),” said Rosario.
“Upon arriving at the venue, I already had my mindset fixed: Give it all, (play) all out. There’s no more tomorrow. I need to step up today,” said Khobuntin, who has never had a problem with confidence.
Before joining the Bulldogs as an under-the-radar recruit, Rosario starred for two years at Technological Institute of the Philippines (TIP). He left TIP to focus on his stint for the RP Youth Team then-coached by Altamirano. Afterwards, he successfully tried out for NU. Other teams tried to lure him, but his heart belonged to the Bulldogs.
“Ateneo (de Manila University) and De La Salle (University) also tried to recruit me, but I knew I had my best opportunity at NU. Plus, I was already familiar with Coach’s system,” said Rosario.
He was supposed to spend only a year of residency. But enrollment issues forced him to sit out another year. Finally in 2012, he made his UAAP debut. The high-leaping forward brimmed with potential in his first two years. He, however, was mostly inconsistent. He took ill-advised shots and was a mediocre defender.
But experience breeds improvement. Now in his final year, Rosario has finally found his opportunity to shine. He has eased into his role as a primary offensive option with his lithe moves, pogo stick-like legs, and reliable touch from the outside.
For his efforts, Rosario was named Most Improved Player this season, averaging 11.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, and 2.4 APG.
“I never set it as a goal prior to the season. As our coaches say, there’s no star in our team. The award is just a bonus of the extra effort I put it in this season,” said Rosario. “Not just effort, but extra effort.”
The brusque and heavily inked Khobuntin traversed a rougher road. He was a sought-after recruit from Letran High School, where he earned Mythical Five honors in his final year. But when he joined the Bulldogs in 2010, he was sparingly used, even spending games glued to the bench the entire time.
When he got fielded in, he desperately tried to contribute. Unfortunately, it resulted in forced shots and foolhardy decisions, relegating him to the backburner after hardly breaking a sweat. Even when he was already in his third season, he was shunned for younger players.
It was difficult for a former high school superstar to swallow. But his faith never wavered, finally hosting his coming-out party this year. Asked if there was a time he got deeply frustrated, he briskly shook his head and had a proud smirk on his face like it was a dim-witted question.
“I never got frustrated. I just continued to work hard and trusted my coaches’ plan for me. I improved my game and stayed within the system. I’m happy it worked,” said Khobuntin, who averaged 8.4 PPG and 7.4 RPG in the eliminations, while playing tough, physical defense.
“We’re (coaches) very happy with Glenn. Sometimes he looks for his shots, but we just remind him to let the game come to him. He has focused on his role as a stopper. It’s a big sacrifice but he does his job,” said Altamirano earlier in the season.
New lease on life
With 41 seconds left in the game and the win already secure, Altamirano, in a fitting gesture, took Rosario out so the team and the crowd could acknowledge his efforts. He was welcomed by assistant coach Joey Guanio with a tight hug before high-fiving every member of the team. He then sat down on the end of the bench, placed his towel over his back, bowed his head and prayed.
Seconds later, Khobuntin was also taken out of the game and received the same warm reception. He approached Rosario and patted his head. His teammate, however, was still in deep prayer and didn’t look up. But a smile couldn’t be wiped off Khobuntin’s face. Passionate to a fault at times, he clearly had his emotions checked in the game, something he felt he had to do.
“Hindi na kailangan ‘yung emosyon e, mas kailangan ‘yung focus (Focus was needed more than emotions),” said Khobuntin.
When the final buzzer sounded and with the entire team engulfed in ebullience, serenaded by comforting cheers from the crowd, Rosario didn’t bother to move an inch and continued with his reflection.
“I’m just really thankful to God for giving me another chance. Umpisa pa lang, gusto ko na talaga bumawi. Ang sakit sa loob na hindi ako nakatulong last game (From the start, I really wanted to redeem myself. It was hard for me to take that I didn’t contribute last game),” said Rosario, who suffered from cramps in the second half of Game 1.
“I give them (Rosario and Khobuntin) a big high-five. They made it easy for us (today). They’re our leaders. They’re the ones who’ll carry us far,” said Alfred Aroga.
After their post-game tradition—win or lose—of kneeling down in prayer, Khobuntin, always vocal, led his teammates in the huddle amid a throng of photographers. He reminded them it’s not yet over. They then all raised their hands and clasped them together before screaming in unison: “One!”
That’s the Bulldogs’ battle-cry. They are one. They are family. But for this game, perhaps without them realizing, it also meant something else: they need one more win. One more win for the elusive title and pen a storybook ending to their Cinderella season.
Whether they like it or not, next Wednesday’s game will be the last in the UAAP for Rosario and Khobuntin. They want nothing else but to ride off into the proverbial sunset with a championship in tow.
Now that would be a final game to remember.