MANILA,  October 7, 2004  (STARweek) By Matthew T. Estabillo - That’s all, folks.

On Thursday evening last week, the curtains finally came down on the 2004 UAAP men’s basketball season. And as usual, the newly-crowned champs partied the night away, while the runner-ups lounged in self-denial. The best-of-three finals went the distance–a fitting conclusion to what has been another hell of a ride for college sports–and a very memorable one at that.

In a season that saw the departure of senior marquee players and the debut of several rookie coaches, new cagers began to emerge as stars, including Ateneo’s JC Intal and UE’s Marcy Arellano (the two were named Most Improved Player and Rookie of the Year, respectively). They, along with a new breed of other young talents, helped give the UAAP a new look and, more importantly, a much-needed boost for what some might describe as a "watered-down" varsity league.

"How I miss the good ol’ days days when all-around greats still dominated–guys who could really take over," sighs Ace Custodio, a law student from the University of Sto. Tomas and a self-procalimed hoops expert. "Karamihan kasi ngayon mga specialists na lang. Just about anybody can stand alone in the spotlight."

True or not, these were bold sentiments, indeed, and a bit exaggerated–probably triggered by his own frustrations over the Growling Tigers, who have lately been playing more like scared kittens, finishing near the bottom of the standings for the second year in a row.

Thankfully though, the color and excitement that only college b-ball can bring has remained. It was again a year of twists and highlights, of comebacks and upsets, of blowouts and awesome endings. The dramas unfolded almost immediately after the initial tip-off last July, and peaked just when the race for the top spot had tightened.

It was, most of all, the year of the Final Four. The story was classic soap opera: a new powerhouse eyeing its second straight title; two prominent schools reviving their hatred for each other; and a young underdog hoping to return to their glory days of the mid-80s.

The road to repeat

It has been another fabulous season for the FEU Tamaraws. Despite losing seven key players from their championship roster last year, coach Koy Banal’s boys ruled the elimination round with a league-best 10-3 record, proving once again that Arwind Santos, the 2004 MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, is definitely their return ticket to the promised land.

He continued to be the commanding post player with his flurry of moves in the paint and tremendous timing off the boards. Averaging nearly a double-double with 15.1 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game, Santos almost single-handedly carried the club to its elite level. And along with fiery point guard Dennis Miranda and sweet-shooter Mark Isip, the Tamaraws successfully defended their spot in the finals.

Banal’s master stroke in his playbook couldn’t have been more brilliant.

He knew right from the beginning that winning back-to-back crowns wasn’t a cake walk, so he instilled in his squad an urgent sense of hunger. And this year, it was for respect. Banal’s carefully designed set plays inspired the team to raise their level of play to greater heights. Discipline keyed up their offensive apparatus, and by the time the Tamaraws faced the University of the East, they were ready.

It was a difficult task for new Warriors coach Dindo Pumaren, who reined in a team composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores. The core of the Recto-based squad, which finished third last season, has practically been wiped out. KG Canaleta, Paolo Hubalde and RJ Masbang are the only experienced carryovers.

Starting from scratch has never been easy. The Warriors, who were disposed in the semis last year, still had slam dunk king Niño Canaleta and RJ Masbang in their fold but Pumaren lost their killer 1-2 punch in 2002 MVP James Yap and assists king Paul Artadi to the pro league PBA. Olan Omiping, Philip Butel, Arnold Booker, Jhayson Alminario, Jay-Arr Estrada and Charles Tan have also left the team, leaving Pumaren to pick up the pieces.

Despite these glaring setbacks, however, the Warriors surprisingly still ended up at No.4 with an 8-6 card. This was, of course, mainly due to the coach’s will. He found new heroes in Canaleta, Hubalde and rookie Marcy Arellano, all of whom carried much of the team’s offensive load.

Fortunately blessed with the right amount of chemistry, the trio’s surprise effectiveness on the court motivated the rest of the team to fare much better.

People weren’t expecting much from the UE Warriors, and the team itself certainly had a lengthy and thorny trip to the Final Four.

But after a hard-earned place in the standings, Pumaren’s spirited squad saw their Cinderalla season come to an end when FEU finally trounced them in the semis, 71-64.

Rivalry Revisited

The Araneta Coliseum was packed to the hilt with thousands of die-hard Eagles-Archers fanatics last September 18. In a rubber match between bitter rivals that was to determine the opponent of the Tamaraws in the finals, the hardwood leaders of De La Salle came out in full force.

In his seventh year as Archers head coach, Franz Pumaren remained focused on the basics–rebounding, consistent passing, and hard-nosed team defense. The results for sticking with his gameplan? Nine straight Finals appearances, four straight crowns (from 1998 to 2001) and an admirable winning attitude.

After being eliminated by the Blue Eagles in the Final Four series last year, La Salle embarked on a precarious voyage this season to try and reclaim their superior status in the Philippine collegiate basketball scene.

Anchored by Mark Cardona (who had a sensational 17.9 points per game average last year) and Joseph Yeo, the Archers continued to make use of their trademark full court press. Jun-Jun Cabatu also led the supporting crew along with last year’s top rookie Joseph Casio, rebounding menace Jerwin Gaco, and 6-foot-5 center Michael Gavino.

With this impressive group of talents, La Salle was tipped to return to the championship phase after a one-year absence. And they did–with an 82-69 victory over the Eagles.

Ateneo, on the other hand, still had the formidable combination of Larry Fonacier, LA Tenorio, Paolo Bugia, and Magnum Membrere.

Fonacier subsequent injury, however, clearly took its toll on the slumping Eagles. After sweeping the first round with seven consecutive victories, Ateneo dropped five of their last eight games, including two crucial matches against FEU and La Salle, either of which could’ve put them at No.1 or No.2.

With a series of coaching changes and perplexing player movements, Ateneo showcased a renewed basketball squad.

They have elevated youthful Sandy Arespacochaga to the top post after former head coach Joel Banal moved to the professional ranks.

The Eagles reached the finals last year, but with the loss of key figures Rich Alvarez and Wesley Gonzales, the team naturally struggled to control the boards all season long.

Despite their disappointing exit, the Eagles can still consider this a good year as they charged their way back into the playoff picture even without the versatile Foncier. In his absence, glitzy dribbler LA Tenorio did most of the damage on the offensive end.

The Finals

In Game 1, La Salle came prepared, determined and exuded confidence after clipping archrival Ateneo in the semi-finals. The team was pumped up and this enabled them to dictate the tempo right from the opening tap. FEU was playing catch-up, and it never did actually catch up as DLSU rolled to a 58-51 victory.

According to sportswriter Juan Carlos Cuna, the close seven point margin belies the fact that DLSU outplayed FEU in most departments that day, out-shooting, out-rebounding and out-passing the latter, bringing forth a total team effort. "As an illustration, every Green Archer that entered the game got at least one rebound, with Junjun Cabatu leading the way with eight. Overall, the Archers simply out-hustled and out-ran the Tamaraws. Mark Cardona and sophomore Ryan Araña continuously disected the FEU defense.

FEU, on the other hand, got the usual statistics from Arwind Santos, who finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks, and ace point guard Dennis Miranda, who had 10 points, 3 assists and 4 steals. However, both of them shot miserably from the field and failed to prevent the game from going beyond their reach. More importantly, aside from the two FEU stars, only RJ Rizada gave a noteworthy performance. Noticeably, other usual solid contributors like Mark Isip, Don Yabut and Jeffrei Chan did not produce.

In Game 2, there was a reversal of roles. FEU coach Banal obviously talked some sense into his wards before the game and reminded them that the "real" FEU team had not shown up for Game 1. Apparently convinced that they had so much more to offer, the Tamaraws took it to the Green Archers from the opening tip. Suddenly, it was DLSU that seemed to play without direction.

Although DLSU was still tough on defense and scrambling for every loose ball, it was as though FEU was just scrambling faster and jumping higher and making the shots that it did not make in Game 1. FEU devastated DLSU in the rebounding department, 46-27, with the MVP Santos grabbing 15, as well as swatting away a couple of shots and altering many others. FEU found the teamwork it had sorely missed in Game 1. Rizada and Chan stepped up to lead their team in scoring with 13 and 11 points, respectively. These two reliable players repeatedly pierced the hoop with key shots.

Mark Cardona seemed to be in a battle all by his lonesome in Game 2. Everyone knew he would try to lift his team on his shoulders after losing out (by a very, very small margin) the MVP battle to Santos of FEU just prior to the game, but it seems his teammates were content to leave him by himself.

Cardona scored 18 points, but no other Green Archer scored in double digits. A brief stretch of brilliance buoyed the Green Archers in the third quarter, enabling them to fight back and cut the lead of FEU to a mere two points at the end of the quarter. However, it seems the spunk of DLSU had been expended in their run and they were plagued by unforced errors, careless plays and dismal shooting in the fourth quarter, going on to lose by ten, 67-57.

So all in all, who took home the title? As we put this issue to bed, we’re waiting for that all-important Game 3, just like the rest of you. By the time you read this, of course, it’ll all be over but for the euphoria for either the Green Archers with their sharpened arrows or the Tamaraws with their sharpened horns.

PHNO NOTE: Read final game report posted  October 1, 2004  -  ARCHERS  CASH  ONE  IN  FOR BIG  WIN OVER  TAMS

MANILA,  October 1, 2004  (STAR) By Abac Cordero - An arrow straight into the heart of the Tamaraws.

With the clock ticking and all the marbles at stake, JV Casio delivered the biggest shot of his life yesterday, a booming triple that gave La Salle a 68-65 victory over FEU and its fifth UAAP championship in seven years, etc., etc....................

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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