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‘Not Today’ mantra keeps Jeric Teng’s season alive

By Paolo Mariano Posted Sep 19th 2013

UST's Jeric Teng has adopted a new mantra to extend his final UAAP year as much as he can.

With 9.2 seconds left on the game clock and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on its way to a victory over Ateneo de Manila University, Jeric Teng raised his arms before emphatically pointing to the hallowed floor of the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

He muttered something to himself. You could easily read his lips: Not today.

The day he was pertaining to was his inevitable last game in the UAAP. Sooner or later, he’ll have to say goodbye to his illustrious collegiate career. But as he said, not today.    

The Growling Tigers gained a new lease on life after escaping the Blue Eagles, 82-74 in their do-or-die match for the last ticket in the Final Four, arranging a semifinals date with top-seed National University (NU).

Teng led UST in crunch time, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the second half, including five clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the win and extend his numbered UAAP days.

"I didn’t want it to be my last game. I prayed that I’ll still get to play a few more games,” said Teng, who was near tears when the final buzzer sounded. "I’m just overjoyed. I’ve been through a lot this season."

Prior to the season, the fifth-year guard was expected to have an MVP-type year. After all, he tore up the summer leagues with his scoring smorgasbord. But instead, his final UAAP stint turned into a frustration-filled one.

After playing well in their first two games—both wins—Teng suffered a severe right shoulder injury against NU or more popularly known to UST fans as The Jeoff Javillonar Incident. He sat out five games before returning, incidentally, or perhaps deliberately, against the Bulldogs in the second round. But alas, The Return ended in a return to the hospital. He suffered a left hamstring injury in the second quarter and missed two more games.

It was terribly frustrating for Teng. Why now? Why in my final hurrah? Any graduating player wants to play as much as he can. To go all out. To savor every moment. To leave a lasting memory. Things, however, don’t always work out that way. Just ask Larry Fonacier, Ramil Tagupa, and fellow UST sniper Jemal Vizcarra, who all suffered season-ending ACL injuries in their final year.

"Had my season ended today, I’ll be terribly sad that I wasn’t able to fully help my team because of my injuries. ‘Yun ‘yung worst feeling eh, ‘yung hindi ka naka-contribute (That’s the worst feeling, not being able to contribute),” said Teng after the win.

The victory, however, wasn’t initially on his mind. The first thing he thought of in the morning was the likelihood of playing his last game in the UAAP. League eligibility can whiz by like a whisper. One day, he was a highly touted rookie in 2009 after leading Xavier to back-to-back titles in the Metro Manila Tiong Lian Basketball Association and winning the MVP plum in his senior year. Next thing he knew, he’s in his final tour of duty for UST.

"Pagkagising ko, naisip ko na baka ito na nga ‘yung huling UAAP game ko. Thankful ako na hindi pa pala, (When I woke up, the thought that this could be my final UAAP game lingered. Thankfully, it wasn’t)," said Teng.  

The Growling Tigers' practice last Monday was an emotional one. Everyone entertained the fact that it could be their last for the season, and for Teng, Clark Bautista, and Robert Hainga, players in their final year, it could be their last for their beloved alma mater.

"Pagdating ko sa practice, late ako kasi galing ako sa klase, nagbibiruan sila, nagkakantahan sila ng mga goodbye song, ‘Paalam na, aking mahal,’ mga ganun (I arrived late for practice after attending my class, when I got there, they were jokingly singing goodbye songs)," said Ed Daquioag, who was teammates with Bautista at Benedictine International School. "Sabi ko kay Jeric, ‘Pare, bibigyan pa kita ng mga laro, hindi mo pa last game’ (I told Jeric, ‘I’ll give you more games, it’s not your last game yet’)."    

It was easier said than done though. After all, they were facing Ateneo, the five-time defending champion. A team that plays better when its back is against the wall. A team with two of the league's most clutch players in Kiefer Ravena and Ryan Buenafe.

But as soon as the 22-year-old Teng arrived at the Big Dome, he immediately changed his mindset: Not today. 

"The nervousness was there. But I trust my team. We were all emotional. We promised to work hard. We all wanted to win,” said Teng.

"I talked to Jeric before the game. I told him I don’t want to go on vacation yet. He said, ‘me too,’" said UST head coach Pido Jarencio, who lost to University of the East in the championship in his final UAAP game in 1985.

During warm-ups, Teng wore a yellow t-shirt over his uniform. In black capital letters, it said PRAY, PLAY, BELIEVE. He occasionally looked at the stands, particularly to the ultimate Jeric Teng fans club made up of his father Alvin, mother Susan, younger sister Almira, and brother Jeron, who also proudly wore a yellow t-shirt saying THE POTENT KING TIGER JERIC TENG.

"Hindi ko alam kung saan niya nakuha 'yun. Nagulat nga ako na nagsuot siya ng ganun (I don’t know where he got that shirt. I was surprised he wore that shirt)," said Teng with a laugh.

He didn't shoot much during warm-ups. He spent most of his time sitting silently on the bench, his head bowed and hands clasped together, perhaps contemplating on his swan song. He knows how disappointing it is to exit the league with a loss. He's seen it first hand with his former teammates: Dylan Ababou, Khasim Mirza, Allein Maliksi, Chris Camus, and Jeric Fortuna. 

A few moments later, Jeron walked by behind the UST bench and tickled his older brother in his left ear before going back to his seat. It was a peculiar way of saying good luck. When the buzzer sounded to signal the start of the game, his mother, who gets over-emotional during games, pointed to him. He responded with a smile and pounded his chest. Not today, mom.

But after leading by as much as 18 points in the first half, courtesy of back-to-back hits by Teng, UST saw its lead get chopped in the third quarter. Ateneo even held a 48-45 advantage after a Ravena three-pointer. But Teng and Bautista, quite poetically, spearheaded a 13-2 run to erect a 65-53 lead early in the payoff period, capped off by a gusty top-of-the-key trey by Teng, who made his trademark pistol-firing gesture to the yellow-clad crowd, before encircling the "STO. TOMAS" plastered on his jersey. Not today.   

The Growling Tigers never relinquished the lead from there and earned the W, avenging their sweep to the Blue Eagles in last year’s finals. When the final buzzer sounded, Teng raised his arms and knelt to the floor. He got hugs from his teammates and coaches, pointed to Jeron, who answered with a smile, and made the sign of the cross after the UST Hymn.

"It was extra satisfying to beat Ateneo. They’re a good team with good players and good coaches,” said Teng.   

"My leader is back!” exclaimed Jarencio in the post-game press conference.

On Sunday, UST will face a twice-to-beat NU squad that is peaking at the right time. The odds are stacked against the Growling Tigers but Teng is motivated to keep their and his season alive. When he wakes up that day, you all know what’s going to be on his mind.