GOLDEN ERA: The UST Growling Tigers that won it all from 1993-1996September 22, 2017
GOLDEN ERA: The UST Growling Tigers that won it all from 1993-1996
By Gerry Plaza
They seemed like a real pack of Tigers ready to devour the entire league with just one swoop.
The UST Growling Tigers’ roars went louder from a painful setback. In Season 55, that final game loss to FEU in the eliminations for a trip to the Finals was so devastating that Coach Aric del Rosario vowed he will come back the next year with a dynasty at hand.
While reporters had shrugged that off with a grin in the post-game, he was actually dead serious.
And when Season 56 kicked off, everyone in the UAAP thought a terrible hurricane passed by. The Tigers, hungry for its first legitimate plum since 1963, were unstoppable. With slotman Dennis Espino manning the paint, Rey Evangelista and Udoy Belmonte on the wings, and Dale Singson and Bal David on the backcourt, it was a team no one could dare cross paths with.
They trashed all opposition, not even an Adamson Falcons team that had stalwarts Kenneth Duremdes, Giovanni Pineda, and EJ Feihl on its lineup. Sweeping the first round in the first year of the Final Four, they marched on to the second round with the same deadly arsenal and only needed to beat Adamson in the last game of the eliminations to complete a season sweep, and copping the title.
It was complete domination, with Espino taking charge, overwhelming the Falcons, 75-68 to bag its first UAAP basketball crown in 29 years.
Blame it on one of the most formidable benches in league history to continue its reign. With Patrick Fran, Edmund Reyes, Gilbert Lao, Estong Ballesteros, Christopher Cantonjos, Richard Yee, Gerard Francisco, and Siot Tanquincen supporting its already vaunted starters, there was no way the Tigers could fail. Especially with a very supportive community back in Espana, Manila at their side every step of the way.
UST-La Salle rivalry
In the next seasons, the UAAP was treated to one of the most fabled rivalries in its history—the champion Tigers against the De La Salle Green Archers, who paraded the likes of Tonyboy Espinosa, Jason Webb, Mark Telan, Elmer Lago, Don Allado, Allen Patrimonio and Tyrone Bautista. From 1994 to 1996, the Tigers took the Archers to its limits, yet overpowering them in the end.
In Season 57, it was the Tigers who played catch-up in the elims. With other teams improving, UST had to struggle in the eliminations, and ended up at fourth place, barely making the Final Four. But they remained relentless in their drive to retaining their crown. Even if the odds were against them, they were determined to prevail.
The Tigers overcame the FEU Tamaraws’ twice-to-beat advantage in their Final Four series to arrange a showdown with De La Salle in the finals. And, they faced a 1-0 deficit and needed two straight wins to upend the Archers and keep the crown.
Despite the odds, the Tigers completed their mission even with a rubber match the Archers led most of the game, but came back with a dramatic endgame run led by Henry Ong to come within one with a few seconds left, 76-75, before David sank two free throws to notch the lead for the first time in the game, 77-76. With two seconds left, De La Salle had the chance to win it all. Lago tried to win it with a short stab but missed. He outhustled other Tigers in the paint to grab the rebound, but missed two putbacks at the buzzer, giving UST its second-straight crown.
The next year saw UST dominating the eliminations, hands down, and their familiar nemesis breathing down their necks once more. De La Salle, behind Webb and Telan, took Game 1, 88-78. But again it was the Tigers, now led by Cantonjos and Ballesteros, who had character and the will to bring their streak further. They prevailed, 66-62, in Game 2, and stood high in the battle of wits with a close 67-64 in the winner-take-all, again breaking the hearts of La Sallians, and further extending the celebration in UST for a three-peat.
And in Season 59, La Salle seemed to have UST’s number in the eliminations with two straight wins. But when both reached the Finals for the third straight season, UST more than made up for their pre-playoff debacle by winning two-straight in the Best-of-Three, with a 57-54 Game 2 win, bagging that monumental 4-peat, staving off several Archer threats to equalize with a hail of three-point attempts in the final seconds.
UST’s dynasty in the early 90s with this incredible four-peat was more than just assembling a champion team, it was an incredible victory of the human spirit, never giving up, and achieving glory despite the odds.
Photo of the UST Growling Tigers Basketball Team 1993-1994 courtesy of Patrick and Marijo Fran