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Special Report: Former UST and La Salle protagonists relive 90s rivalry

By Paolo Mariano Posted Oct 2nd 2013

Estong Ballesteros and other former UST and La Salle members share their stories about their unforgettable heated rivalry in the 90s.

Ah, the 90s. The decade when denim overalls were cool, people listened to music via the Walkman, Titanic and Jurassic Park lorded it over in the box office, and the Chicago Bulls bushwhacked their way to the top of the NBA.    

In the UAAP, the 90s is best remembered for the heated rivalry between University of Santo Tomas (UST) and De La Salle University. It was the hottest ticket in town. Whenever the two teams met, the league was automatically hooked to a standstill. At that time, La Salle didn’t worry about Ateneo de Manila University, which was still in its so-called Dark Ages.

After UST swept the 1993 season en route to its first championship after 26 years, the UAAP instituted the Final Four in 1994. Not only did this pave the way for more intense competition, it also added fuel to the fire of the UST-La Salle rivalry. Their games were tough, physical, and exhausting. Their genuine dislike towards each other evolved organically. They were consistently the top two teams in the 90s and they always brought the best out of each other.

Kapag La Salle ang kalaban, ‘di na ko makatulog nun before the game. La Salle was a strong team with good coaches and experienced players,” said legendary former UST head coach Aric del Rosario.

Close call

After their unprecedented 14-0 romp, most of UST’s core were gone in 1994 including Siot Tanquincen, Rey Evangelista, Udoy Belmonte, and Patrick Fran. But the Growling Tigers were far from being a doormat. They still had veterans in reigning MVP Dennis Espino, Bal David, and Edmund Reyes and a bunch of upstarts in Chris Cantonjos, Henry Ong, and rookie Dale Singson.

The Green Archers, on the other hand, lost Noli Locsin to graduation prior to the season and was led by Mark Telan, Elmer Lago, and Jason Webb. They also had a solid rookie class with Tyronne Bautista, Dominic Uy, Maoi Roca, Calijohn Orfrecio, and Allen Patrimonio. That 1994 squad, coached by Virgil Villavicencio, also had current La Salle mentor Juno Sauler, who was in his final year.

La Salle finished the elimination round as the top seed and easily made it to the finals after beating Far Eastern University (FEU) in the Final Four. UST, meanwhile, had to go through the needle hole. It faced twice-to-beat University of the East (UE) in the semifinals. But championship poise carried the Growling Tigers as they upset UE to keep their title defense alive.

In the finals, the spewing animosity between UST and La Salle boiled into a dark and awful display. In Game 1, La Salle fans brought a banner at the Cuneta Astrodome boldly saying, “Tuition niyo, baon lang namin!”

Ginawa nila ‘yun as pang-asar sa amin kasi ‘di nila kami matalo. Akala nila madi-distract kami pero hindi na namin inintindi. Pero hindi na dapat nangyari ‘yun, wala na ‘yun kinalaman sa laro,” said Cantonjos.

Naturally, the UST supporters didn’t appreciate the gesture. So, in Game 2, they struck back, although in an even more distasteful manner. They showed up with a banner that read: “Hi Jason! – Carmela.”

In 1991, the Vizconde family was murdered, including oldest daughter Carmela, who was also reportedly raped. Webb’s older brother Hubert was tagged as one of the suspects. The UST fans used it to psyche out La Salle’s ace guard and to get even with La Salle. UST officials got livid and disowned the below-the-belt banner. 

But those would soon all be forgotten. After a 1-1 tie in the first two games, the series went into a classic Game 3, which ranks among the greatest wins in Growling Tigers history.

“We were down by one with only a few seconds to go. I got the ball on the left side of the basket. I was thinking to go for the jump shot, but then I saw Bal (David) cutting from the other side of the free throw line so I passed the ball to him and he was fouled by (Elmer) Lago,” said Cantonjos.

David, who went on to become one of the best clutch players in the PBA, calmly sank both free throws. But there were still six seconds left and the Green Archers had a chance to steal the game. They raced to their court, where Telan took a long bank shot but missed. Lago got the rebound but also missed the follow-up. He got it back the third time and finally made the shot. Unfortunately for them, time had already run out and UST escaped with a 77-76 victory.

’Di ko makakalimutan ‘yung laro na ‘yun. Nagpagawa na ‘yung mga La Sallista ng t-shirt, nakalagay ‘Champion’,” said Del Rosario. “Akala ko rin talo na kami. Sa huli nakalamang pa kami ng isa, tapos ilang beses pa nakatira ang La Salle, buti naubos na ‘yung oras.”

Hundreds of UST supporters stampeded to the court to celebrate their second straight UAAP crown. Cantonjos and Ong top-scored for UST with 15 points each, David chipped in 11, while Espino and Reyes added 10 apiece. A pair of rookies in Patrimonio and Bautista led La Salle with 19 and 15 markers, respectively. 

“Dennis was well-guarded during that game. But he was a willing decoy that’s why I got a lot of good shots,” said Cantonjos, who now coaches the UST women’s basketball team.

It was a culmination of a breakout season for Cantonjos. After playing sparingly in his rookie year in 1993, he got increased playing time as a sophomore, backing up Reyes. But in just their second game of the season, Reyes, known for his blue-collar efforts and defensive prowess, dislocated his shoulder, forcing him to miss the rest of the eliminations. Del Rosario, who nabbed Cantonjos out of Letran High School, gave him the starting power forward spot.

“When Edmund got injured, that’s when I was really given a break. When he returned, he became my reliever,” said Cantonjos. “But coach liked to play the three of us together, me, Edmund, and Dennis. We were running big men. Minsan mas mabilis pa kami sa mga guwardiya. When we’re on the break, the three of us could finish. We were hard to stop.”

Third time’s a charm

In 1995, La Salle had an intact core with only Lago exiting. The sophomores were more than ready to fill his shoes. Two more serviceable rookies in Dino Aldeguer and Francis Zamora came in. With the graduating Webb and the much experienced Telan at the forefront, the Green Archers were primed for payback.

UST, on the other hand, bid goodbye to Espino and Reyes but added Richard Yee and reigning Juniors MVP Gerard Francisco, who also went on to win Rookie of the Year. Another key addition was the returning Estong Ballesteros. The high-flying lefty played for UST in 1992 but sat out the next two years due to academic deficiencies. He was the extra offensive threat the team needed.

“La Salle always had good players. But I always felt we were more united than them, that was the character of our team,” said Ballesteros, who now is an assistant coach of the Growling Tigers.

UST and La Salle dominated the preliminary round and were seeded one and two, respectively. The hardworking Cantonjos was named MVP, while Telan finished a close runner-up.

“Telan was a difficult match-up because he was versatile. He can play inside and shoot from the outside,” admitted Cantonjos. “But we had a lot of shooters, so when teams double teamed, I kicked the ball out. Nagpapaulan ng tres nun si Ong,” said Cantonjos, pertaining to his sweet-sniping, set shot-hoisting teammate.

“I have a bad memory but I remember those Ong three-pointers,” said Uy.  

In the Final Four, UST needed two games to escape FEU, while La Salle made easy disposal of UE. So for the third straight year, the rivals faced off in the Last Dance.

But again, after winning the series opener, the boys from Taft failed to close out the next two games. In Game 3, the Growling Tigers were leading by one, 65-64 with less than 20 seconds left. They had the ball so La Salle needed a defensive stop. But Singson was able to drive past Webb and scored on a layup with 9.4 seconds left. Spitfire guard Tony Boy Espinosa had the chance to send the game to overtime but his off-balanced trey missed the mark, sending the UST gallery to a third straight championship frenzy.

“It felt really bad because I thought we had them. I remember that we felt there was a stepping violation that wasn’t called (in the crucial stages of the game),” recalled Uy.

’Yung turingan talaga namin ng players ko nun, parang mag-ama. I really instilled discipline in them. Kung magaling ka pero wala kang disiplina at pangit ang attitude mo, tanggal ka. Walang lugar ang mga pa-star sa team ko,” said Del Rosario.

Title after title after title after title

By 1996, La Salle was sick and tired from its annual embarrassment against UST. Former La Salle star and national team player Jong Uichico was brought in as head coach. The Green Archers didn’t care for the other teams. All they wanted was to spear their arch-nemesis. Things looked bright for them, topping the eliminations behind Telan, who finally won the MVP plum. They also had Don Allado, a talented youngster from Burbank High School in California.

“When I came in, they (UST) were still in power,” said Allado, who entered the league together with UST’s top recruit, Gelo Velasco.

La Salle and second seed UST ousted UE and the University of the Philippines, respectively in the Final Four. Alas, for the third consecutive year, the Black and Gold and the Green and White arranged a best-of-three title showdown.

Only this time, there were no nail-biting finishes as the boys from España swept the series for their fourth straight crown. It was the second longest title streak in UAAP history after UE’s seven-title haul from 1965-1971.

Buong-buo ang mga team ko nun, talagang ayaw magpatalo. Kapag important games, nagkakaisa ang players. Tsaka kahit ‘di ko sabihin, alam na nila gagawin. That was the beauty of it. Magaan ang trabaho ko nun,” said Del Rosario.

“La Salle was a good defensive team. They always gave us a hard time. But we trusted each other and made basketball easy for all of us,” said Cantonjos, the only player to be part of those four straight title squads and whose No. 15 jersey was retired by the Growling Tigers.

End to futility

With the graduation of the formidable one-two punch of Cantonjos and Ballesteros, UST was in transition mode in 1997.

La Salle, meanwhile, was an all-star cast with seniors Telan and Bautista, veterans Uy, Patrimonio, Zamora, Roca, Aldeguer, and Orfrecio, sophomore sensation Allado, and one of the best rookie hauls in UAAP history in Ren-Ren Ritualo, Mac Cuan, Mon Jose, and Magsi Magsumbol. Plus, Uichico now had a year under his belt.

“Our games with UST were always very intense because they can match us up in every position,” said Ritualo, who was named Rookie of the Year.

But despite their powerhouse roster, the Green Archers only managed a third seed in the Final Four. Awaiting them? You guessed it—a twice-to-beat UST squad looking to extend its dynastic reign. After La Salle forced a rubber match, their knockout tiff went down the wire.

“We were down by two in the dying seconds, coach Jong drew a play for me to drive to the lane. But at the last instance, I dropped the ball to Telan, who sent the game into overtime. I think I scored six points in the extension and was named Best Player of the Game.”

Finally! After three straight years of futility in the post-season, La Salle got the Growling Tigers off their back.

“It was a very epic win for us. We overthrew them,” said Allado.

“They were tough. I was matched up against a 6-foot-1 guard in Dale Singson. I was giving a lot of inches. They were experienced. Gerard Francisco was taller and more athletic than our wing guys,” said the 5-foot-8 Aldeguer. “I felt at that time, we just had more heart. Playing against UST was always a heart issue.”

Unfortunately, the Green Archers got swept by a Celino Cruz-led FEU in the finals. But they were headed in the right direction and more importantly, they got rid of their tormentors from España.

“Playing for La Salle will always be memorable and cherished. The quality of those games is incomparable. It gave honor and pride to my career as a basketball player. Despite falling short in the end, I don’t have any regrets because I gave my all,” said Telan, who ended his UAAP career as a two-time MVP and is now living in the States.

A title at last

In 1998, Uichico’s national squad teammate and fellow La Salle alumnus Franz Pumaren assumed head coaching duties. The stern tactician steered the team to the league’s best record and the top seed in the Final Four.

“I can’t recall what was our last elimination game, but if we win that game, we’ll face UST in the semis. Both our previous games were close. There was this stigma that La Salle always loses to UST (in the playoffs),” said Pumaren. “If we lose that game, we’d face UE, which we beat by an average of 20 points in the eliminations. But I don’t believe in shying away from a challenge, it sets a bad example.

The UST stigma initially came to fore as the Growling Tigers defeated La Salle, 55-51 to force a winner-take-all.

“In the post-game interview after our loss, I guaranteed we’ll win the next one, which we did. I remember Orfrecio making a crucial shot that got the lucky bounce,” recalled Pumaren.

For the second straight year, the Green Archers ended UST’s season. The stigma has been exorcized. They also went on to capture the crown for the first time since 1990, avenging their loss to the Tamaraws.

“That was my fondest memory of our rivalry with UST, finally beating them in 1998 to get to the finals and finally winning the championship,” said Uy, who graduated that season and is now a popular sportscaster.

The Shot

With Pumaren at the helm and his vaunted full-court press a consistent source of headaches for opposing teams, La Salle was a clear favorite to repeat in 1999. The team had the same nucleus led by Allado, who went on to win his second straight MVP trophy, and Ritualo, who had blossomed into the league’s most feared shooter, especially in the clutch.

UST, meanwhile, was a rag-tag crew of unknowns like Marvin Ortiguerra, Gilbert Lao, Mel Latoreno, Emerson Oreta, and the “Dunking Duo” of Cyrus Baguio and Niño Gelig. Only team skipper Velasco had ample experience. But boy, they were a fighting bunch.

“Having the role of a defensive stopper during that time, I was always tasked to defend the top guards of the UAAP. That’s why it wasn't easy against those UST teams, which had guards like Francisco, Oreta, Gelig, Baguio, and Derrick Hubalde,” said Jose.

La Salle and UST topped the eliminations anew and ousted FEU and Ateneo, respectively in the Final Four, forging another clash for the diadem after a two-year cool off. The Green Archers have disposed the Growling Tigers in the last two post-seasons and they were favored to win back-to-back titles. Like their two previous finals tiffs, the series went to a deciding Game 3.

“I cost us the game in Game 1. We were down by two in our final possession. I was supposed to give the ball to Ren-Ren but I took the shot instead. It was an airball,” sheepishly recalled Aldeguer.    

“When we got back to the locker room after our (62-60) loss, I wanted to put earphones. Kasi nung panahon na ‘yon, aside from coach Franz, nandun din sina coach Dindo tsaka coach Derrick (Pumaren). So, tatlo agad sesermon sa’yo,” added the pint-sized point guard with a laugh.

Game 3 went down as one of the most thrilling finishes in UAAP history. With about 30 seconds left and UST up, 66-64, Baguio and Jose battled for the jumpball on La Salle’s end of the court. Ritualo got the ball and pulled up for a left baseline jumper but missed. Allado got the offensive board but also muffed the put-back. Lao grabbed the rebound for UST and was fouled. La Salle was in penalty. Allado couldn’t believe he missed a close shot. Pumaren sued for time to give his final orders.

“You wonder whether that adds to the pressure issue or relieves him, when somebody tells him (Lao), ‘just two free throws’ when he’s only made one of four so far in this game,” said commentator Jimmy Javier, who was calling the game with Joaqui Trillo for PTV-4, after hearing the UST huddle.

Lao, who is now an assistant coach at FEU, badly missed the first freebie, hitting only the front of the rim. He made the second one in suspenseful fashion, the ball rolling off the rim before going back again. It seemed the shrieks of the UST supporters willed it back in. The Green Archers had no timeouts left. Aldeguer quickly brought down the ball and passed to Ritualo.

“The play was for Ren-Ren. He was the best shooter in the entire amateur ranks that time. UST knew we were going to him. He got double teamed (in the right corner). He swung the ball to Don, who swung it to me. Gelig was a bit late (in rotating back). It felt good when I took the shot,” said Aldeguer.

The graduating Aldeguer, who lost his starting spot to Cuan that season and was only playing around five minutes per game, heaved a three-pointer from top of the key. Nothing but net—plus a foul! Tied ball game at 67 with 2.7 ticks left. It was bedlam for the La Salle faithful at the Cuneta Astrodome.

“Actually, it was a broken play. Don was supposed to give a blind screen for Ren-Ren and then Don will flare. But Don didn’t give a good screen. UST anticipated the ball would go to Ren-Ren. We had no choice but to go to Dino,” said Pumaren. “He just made the big basket. But knowing Dino, he’s always been like that in crucial games.”

Hindi ko rin malilimutan ‘yung laro na ‘yun. Lamang na kami ng tatlo. Sinabi ko sa kanila sa timeout, walang do-double team dahil baka may malibre sa La Salle. E tinakam sa double team ‘yung isa kong player sa corner. Ayun, na-shoot ‘yung tres, may foul pa,” said Del Rosario with a little laugh.

“We were winning. The UST crowd was already throwing confetti. I had to stop them. Then Aldeguer made that shot,” said former UST athletic director and Gerard’s mother Felicitas Francisco. “Until now, when I see him, I jokingly say to him, ‘I still hate you.’”

But the game wasn’t over. Aldeguer missed the bonus free throw, sending the game into overtime.

“When UST called a timeout (after we tied the game), my teammates got really excited. They were already looking forward to the win. May mga sumisigaw, ‘Europe na ‘to!’ ‘Spain na ‘to!’ They were already thinking of our bonus. When I released the ball, it felt good but it just hit the back rim. I guess you can’t have them all,” said Aldeguer.

But the Green Archers were able to regroup in the extra period and outscored UST, 11-8 with Aldeguer scoring the first four points before fouling out. The Growling Tigers had a chance to send the game into a second OT but Velasco missed a long three, giving La Salle the cardiac win, 78-75 and the second of its four straight titles under Pumaren.

‘Yung mga photographer nun, naka-ready na sa akin (nung regulation). Kaso nadisgrasya pa. Pero talagang ganun,” added the fiery mentor, who coached UST from 1992-2004 and is now responsible for the rebirth of the University of Perpetual Help basketball program in the NCAA.

“That was my favorite moment of our rivalry with UST, Dino’s shot. UST had a deep lineup so the match-up was good,” said Ritualo, who top-scored that game with 22 points, followed by the 21 of Aldeguer. They stepped up in the absence of Allado, who was stymied by the defense.

“I think I only had 12 points, way below my average. They were aggressive, formidable opponents. They gave us a run for our money. But I knew we couldn’t be stopped,” said Allado, who apparently wasn’t feeling 100% that day.

“Only a few people know that I was confined in Makati Medical Center before Game 3 because of a severe flu. I just told the doctors to release me. It was a very memorable game for me,” said Allado. “But at the same time, it was also my worst memory of our battles against UST because after the game, I had to go straight back to the hospital to get fluids injected in me.”

For the first time in their last five finals appearances, the Growling Tigers were tamed. It was only fitting that it was their former victims who finally struck the tranquilizer.  

“I'm lucky and honored to be part of the squad that finally beat UST in the finals. Both our teams were so strong and competitive that any of those games could've gone either way. (But) that's what makes winning more fulfilling, playing against the top teams with talented players,” said Jose, who is now an assistant coach at NU.

Filled to the rafters

But aside from the classic battles, the game-winners, and the missed opportunities, what the players and coaches remember the most during their heated rivalry was the spirited atmosphere and the unrivaled sense of school pride.

“I love playing UST. Their crowd is really involved, not only the alumni, but the students as well. They really go out of their way to support their team,” praised Pumaren, who is now a PBA head coach after leaving La Salle in 2009 with five titles.

“Every year, inaabangan talaga ‘yung UST-La Salle. Malakas din ‘yung La Salle crowd. Hangga’t  maaari pipikunin ka nila. Pero hindi ako nagpapaasar, tinuturo ko na lang ‘yung score sa kanila kasi kami lagi ‘yung lamang. ‘Yun ang panlaban ko sa kanila,” said Del Rosario with a laugh.

“When the drums start banging, your adrenaline just gets going,” said Allado, who has enjoyed a successful pro career. “When we lost, we felt we let a whole community down. That’s how big it was for us.”

Ginu-goose bumps ako tuwing pinapaalala sa akin ‘yung crowd nun. Laging puno ‘yung venue. Wala kang makikita, puro tao. Ang ganda ng feeling,” said Cantonjos. “At that time, ang dami nagtatampo kasi ‘di na makapasok. Pati ibang kamag-anak namin, ‘di na nakanood.”

“UST always brought the most fans. 60% of them would occupy the stadium and 58% of them would cheer from tip-off to the final buzzer. It’s hard to beat a team with a support like that,” said Aldeguer, who is now a successful business man.

’Yun ang pinakamasarap nun, ‘yung support ng UST crowd,” said Ballesteros.

Renewed rivalry?

Today, denim overalls are a fashion no-no, the Walkman is only used by hipsters, Titanic and Jurassic Park have 3D versions, and the Chicago Bulls have yet to win another NBA title.

In the UAAP, after 14 long years, La Salle and UST will once again collide in the ultimate round. With different faces and different styles but with the same hunger for glory. It’s difficult to tell if this will renew their once storied rivalry. But one thing’s for sure, if does that happen, it will make for more unforgettable stories and battles.