BEST OF 5 PART 2: In 2006, the reign of the Red Lion began

BEST OF 5 PART 2: In 2006, the reign of the Red Lion began
San Beda's dynasty began by ending a 28-year title drought [Photo courtesy of San Beda College Alumni website (www.Beda7882.com )]

Read Part 1 of ABS-CBN Sports’ Best of 5 series on the San Beda Red Lions here.

Read Part 3 of ABS-CBN Sports’ Best of 5 series on the San Beda Red Lions here.

Read Part 4 of ABS-CBN Sports’ Best of 5 series on the San Beda Red Lions here.

Read Part 5 of ABS-CBN Sports’ Best of 5 series on the San Beda Red Lions here.

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San Beda College is the winningest team in all of NCAA basketball.

With 21 championships in the Seniors division, they have four more than second-running archrival Colegio de San Juan de Letran.

Almost half of that total comes from the last 12 years where the Red Lions have claimed 10 titles.

A dozen years ago, Mendiola having the rightful claim as the winningest all but seemed to be a far- fetched idea.

Back in 2005, the red and white only had 11 championships in the Seniors division – way behind what the Knights had.

THIS ISN’T WHAT YOU KNOW

Then, San Beda was not the dynasty that it is now – and not even one of the top contenders as that recognition belonged to Letran and Philippine Christian University.

More than that, they were also right smack in the middle of a 28-year title drought, with their last title coming in the late ‘70s.

That 1978 championship was under the guidance of famed mentor Bonnie Carbonell.

After him, a number of coaches tried to take home the championship for the Red Lions only to come up short time and again.

THEN AND NOW

Enter Koy Banal in 2005 and continuing into 2006.

And just to give him a good start, he brought along the very same Carbonell who was the school’s last vestige of a championship. “I brought in Freddie Abuda sa coaching staff to add to Chito Victolero and JB Sison who were already there. More important was I also got coach Bonnie Carbonell who was my hero,” he shared.

He then continued, “He’s the one who inspired me to coach and he was the last coach who gave San Beda a championship.”

As it turns out, Carbonell’s arrival was some sort of premonition as that year was the magical season they had long been waiting for.

Even Banal, 11 years since and numerous stints in the PBA and PBA D-League after, could not forget that magical season. As he put it, “That year was really special. That is still in my heart, that is still in my memory. You won’t forget those experiences.”

THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM

So much so that the now 56-year-old head coach could still narrate what had happened then like it was yesterday.

The story of San Beda’s modern-day dynasty starts at the end of Season 81 – following another finish outside of the playoff picture.

“Right after our last game in Season 81, I just gave the players one week off,” Banal recalled. “I told them Season 82 is already starting for us.”

And so, from October of 2005 onto 2006, they were already gearing up for another shot at ending an almost three-decade long title drought.

KINGS OF THE QUEEN CITY OF THE SOUTH

That gearing up took them as Cebu where, in Banal’s eyes, all came together for them. “Ang key rito is yung aming preparation. I wanted to create adversity kasi nga I wanted to buil their character kaya we went to Cebu,” he said.

He then continued, “’Di lang kami sa isang gym naglaro. Nagpunta kami mismo sa campuses – sa UV (University of Visayas), sa UC (University of Cebu), sa USC (University of San Carlos), USJ-R (University of San Jose-Recoletos. Yun talaga yung key kasi araw-araw na laro tapos may practice pa.”

He also added, “Dun talaga kami nag-bond kasi biro mo, magkakasama kami ng one week. Dun talaga nabuo ang San Beda.”

Still, all those preparations would have been all for naught without game-changing players.

CATALYST FOR CHANGE

Fortunately for Mendiola, that time also saw them with perhaps the biggest game-changer in the history of the NCAA.

Banal’s very first order of business when he took the job was to bring in a big man – and not just a big man, but a dominant big man. “The primary plan was to recruit a dominant big man because that was the problem of San Beda in the previous seasons.

The solution to the problem? A six-foot eight-inch powerhouse hailing from Nigeria. “We brought in Sam Ekwe. I believe his arrival turned the tides for us kasi Rookie (of the Year)-MVP, ano pa bang pwedeng ibigay sa kanya nun,” the mentor said.

Indeed, from the get-go, Ekwe proved to be a force the league had not seen before and averaged 10.6 points, 16.5 rebounds, and three blocks.

While he has always had the tools, Banal said what made him special was that he was more than willing to know more about how to make good use of those tools. “Very dominant, but willing to learn and listen and follow. Kaya I would like to give the credit to Freddie Abuda kasi siya ang tumutok talaga,” he said.

BREAKTHROUGH

With Ekwe wowing just about everybody all the way to both the MVP and RoY awards, the Red Lions followed his lead all the way to the championship round.

There, they bested the Dolphins – then with future PBA stars such as Beau Belga, Jayson Castro, Gabby Espinas – in an epic three-game series.

And it wasn’t even until the very last seconds when Belga’s would-be game-winner clanged off the rim and into the hands of Yousif Aljamal that the decision was definite – Mendiola’s title drought has come to an end.

For the head coach who ended it all, even at that moment, he knew full well that it wasn’t about him. “Yung iniisip ko talaga, para sa mga players e. Yung sakripisyo nila, nagbunga kaya kung makikita mo yung video nun, bawat isa, umakap sa akin e,” he said.

He then continued, “Special talaga yun, nasa puso ko yun at ‘di makakalimutan. Nothing compares to the championship we all won in San Beda.”

FULL CIRCLE

As if the good ending needed to be even better, that 28-year wait was tied up neatly by the presence of one Bonnie Carbonell – the head coach of the last title before the drought and a consultant of the first title after the drought.

“After winning the championship, kami ni coach Bonnie, may maganda kaming kuha na nag-akapan kaming dalawa. ‘Di ko rin makakalimutan yun,” Banal said.

Until now, it’s not just Banal who hasn’t forgotten.

Nobody at all will be forgetting about San Beda, winners of 10 of the last 12 championships, anytime soon.

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.

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