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Historic feat a sweet one but UST not yet done

By Paolo Mariano Posted Sep 30th 2013

UST is now all warmed up to take another crack at history and become the lowest seed to ever win the UAAP crown.

The toughest and fiercest head coach in the UAAP was crying like a baby. He looked like he just lost his favorite toy car. The volatile visage he usually displays on the court morphed into a picture of endearing vulnerability.

The tear ducts have opened for Pido Jarencio. His players and coaching staff gathered around him and jumped in jubilation. There were still 16 seconds left on the clock. But they knew it—Jarencio’s tears were a giveaway. They made history.

The University of Santo Tomas (UST) became the first fourth seed in the league to enter the finals after eliminating top seed National University (NU) in their Final Four clash. With it, the Growling Tigers arranged a best-of-three title showdown with De La Salle University.

Jarencio’s eyes—the ones so used to giving menacing looks to referees after a missed call or to his players after a bone-headed play—continued to well up. He went to the corner of their bench to wipe his tears with a towel. It didn’t matter whose sweat-drenched towel it was. He needed to compose himself. Yet he failed.        

He was still in tears when he shook hands with the Bulldogs coaching staff and players. He then walked towards the press room for the post-game interview. Several reporters, who were walking alongside him, extended their congratulations. He could only muster a tired smile. He looked like he was still in a state of shock. Of disbelief. Of unparalleled relief. But he knew he had to face the media, no matter how distraught he looked.  

He didn’t say a word when he entered the barren, air-conditioned room. He sat down on the assigned chair and once again wiped his tears with tissues he grabbed from the press table, which was littered with papers, notebooks, and laptops. It didn’t matter who the tissue belonged to. Again, he needed to compose himself. A few seconds later, Kevin Ferrer, adjudged the game’s best player, sat beside him.

It took a few minutes before Jarencio finally spoke, albeit in a staccato manner.

“‘Di ko akalain na aabot kami ng finals. Ang hirap. Speechless ako ngayon. Marami rin kasing taong nagdududa sa kakayanan ko (I never thought we’d make it to the finals. It’s hard. I’m speechless right now. A lot of people were doubting my ability),” said Jarencio.  

The 49-year-old mentor is easily a favorite of the reporters. He may be a brutal tiger on the court, but he can be a kitten off it. He always fills up the press room with his jokes, witty remarks, and pun-laced cracks: Pinaghuhuli sila ni (Jan) Sheriff (Sheriff arrested them all), Si Ferrer, tumambay sa (Ray) Parks (Ferrer hung out in the Parks), etc.

But this time around, there were no jokes. After his lone comment, Jarencio stood up and excused himself from the press room, leaving the reporters a tad disappointed that they didn’t get the usual funny quip for their stories. Even Ferrer looked a little surprised with the emotional purgation of his cantankerous coach.

But everyone also understood that Jarencio needed time alone. He was exhausted, mentally, especially, not only from the game but from their turbulent journey to get to the Last Dance.

To make history, the Growling Tigers needed to win three straight do-or-die games. Their chances looked bleak. First, they had to beat five-time defending titlist Ateneo de Manila University in the end of the elimination round for the last Final Four slot. Then, they had to defeat NU back-to-back. The Bulldogs were in top form, riding high on their first ever twice-to-beat incentive. They were due for a title.

Like Jarencio, some of the UST players admitted they had doubts about going this far, especially after dropping to the bottom half of the standings midway in the second round.

“When we lost several games, we had doubts. But we talked to each other and trusted each other. When we started playing as a team again, the doubts slowly went away,” said graduating guard Clark Bautista.

“I was confident of our team but of course, going up against Ateneo, we felt nervous, especially since we just came from a loss to La Salle. Personally, I also doubted myself because of my injury. I didn’t know if I could play at a high level. My timing was off,” said team captain Jeric Teng.

UST clawed Ateneo, 82-74 to get the last semifinals seat and avenge its loss in last year’s championship. Cross out do-or-die game No. 1.

“We showed our team’s character in that game. If we work hard as a team, we’re hard to beat,” proudly said Teng, who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds against the Blue Eagles, his best game since playing La Salle in the season opener last June 29.  

The Growling Tigers once again escaped death with a rousing victory over NU last September 22. Cross out do-or-die game No. 2.

They were one step closer to doing what has never been done before. Most of them, however, weren’t aware of the fact that no fourth seed in UAAP history has made it to the finals. They only knew about if after their first win over the Bulldogs. They read it on social media and various reports. So, rewriting history wasn’t exactly on their minds. But once they found out, they got more excited.

“Making history became an added motivation. We felt we’re destined to win the title this year. We’ve been through a lot, injuries, do-or-die games,” said Aljon Mariano.

“We felt that if there’s one team that will make history, it's going to be us,” said Teng.

Then came last Saturday’s victory. Cross out do-or-die game No. 3. September 28, 2013. Write that down as the day UST made UAAP history. As for Jarencio, it marked the second time in his stellar career that he led the Growling Tigers to a Final Four upset after their title conquest in 2006.

With all the obstacles they had to endure this season, it was a consensus among the players that this year’s feat is infinitely sweeter than last season’s run to the finals.

Mas masarap ‘to, underdog kami e, mas mahirap (This is more fulfilling since we’re the underdogs, it’s more challenging),” said Bautista.

“Coming from three do-or-die games, our backs against the wall, we made it. This is history,” said Karim Abdul.

Galing kami sa wala. Mas grabe ‘yung challenge. Halos lahat sa amin na-injure, ‘di ko inakala na magagawa namin ‘to (We came from nowhere. The challenge was tougher. Almost all of us got injured, I never thought we’d be able to do this),” gushed Teng.

“This is a good thing for our careers, a big thing, a big accomplishment. People won’t forget this,” said Jan Sheriff, who was a revelation in their three do-or-die outings with 5.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 4.0 APG.

While Jarencio was trying to suppress his sobs in the press room, the rest of the Growling Tigers hardly suppressed their joy as they whooped it up on the court. It was a stark contrast of outward emotions. Deep inside, however, they all felt the same. They just did something special.  

Now, they have their sights on accomplishing an even bigger feat: to become the lowest seed to win the UAAP title. This time, they’re aware of the history. They know their memorable Final Four will have an asterisk if they don’t take home the crown.

Inside the locker room, Jarencio sat alone silently in the corner. After a few minutes, he was finally able to compose himself and his sentences. He couldn’t stay speechless for long.

“We made history, it’s an accomplishment, but it’s not complete. Nag-warm up pa lang tayo (We just warmed up),” said Jarencio. “Mahirap pero magiging masaya ‘to (It’s going to be hard but it’s going to be fun).”

The team applauded. Then as they huddled one last time, Mariano screamed: “‘Di pa tayo tapos (We’re not yet done)!”