Nothing to Lose: NU's remarkable run to the UAAP Season 77 men's basketball crown

September 04, 2017

They say that pressure only does one of two things – either it keeps you on your toes or it cripples you as prelude to an utter meltdown.  


Three years into his residence as head coach of the Sampaloc-based cagers, Eric Altamirano was expected to have whipped his Bulldogs into tiptop shape for a shot at the UAAP crown. All eyes were on them, too, as they entered Season 76 with Ray Parks and Jean Mbe at the helm. They didn’t even have to lift a finger to convince everyone else that they were a force to be reckoned with. We are the Bulldogs, and we’re bringing this one home. 


A solid basketball program and an all-star cast. Game over, folks. We have a winner. 


Only that year, it wasn’t National University. All that perfection on paper just didn’t translate inside the court. From being top seeds after two rounds in the eliminations, the Bulldogs hit rockbottom. The hype? Gone. The twice-to-beat advantage? Gone. And by the end of the academic year, their superstars had gone as well, with several others contemplating their exit from the college basketball scene. 


In pre-season press conferences, it’s routinary to ask the coaches which team they particular watch out for. Come Season 77, NU wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. Sure, they were still very much respected. But how far they could go with the lineup they had left was questionable. At that point, even the players weren’t aware of what they were capable of.  


After their last scrimmage before opening, then-captain Glenn Khobuntin called all his boys to a huddle. His exact words were, “mag-cha-champion daw tayo ngayon.” While everyone responded jokingly with “oo”-s and “sigurado na yan”-s, the Bulldogs reacted as if it was such a laughable, impossible thing. Little did they know that they were in for the ride of their lives. 


National University walked into their first game in Araneta, carrying blue and gold with the same amount of pride, but definitely with a lot more humility. They were up against the Growling Tigers after all — the same come-from-behind team that knocked them out twice and ended their season the year before.  


However, contrary to what some thought, they played without any hint of desire for vengeance. Regardless of who the Bulldogs were up against, it was always about them. It was about taking it one game at a time and figuring out who takes care of what. Do they need me to shoot today? Defend the perimeter? Cheer from the sidelines? Without a default guy to depend on, they had to be each other’s heroes. That made all the difference.  


The world started hearing about Troy Rosario and Gelo Alolino, who stayed in the shadows for a very long time. Their squad started to pull upsets and score consecutive wins, and about halfway through the season, people were starting to take notice of their collective potential. They earned a couple of nods and praises, but quite a number still had their reservations. Strokes of brilliance were eventually followed by lapses and letdowns. No wonder they ended eliminations with 7-7 and a do-or-die game away from making it to the semis. 


That rubber match against the Red Warriors was their true litmus test. Have they grown from last year’s miss? What was pressure going to do to them now? 


All practices leading up to that crucial game were disappointing. It was the kind that let you hold on and hope for slim chances but, at the same time, prepared you for another possible heartbreak. It was a stark contrast from how the Bulldogs carried themselves entering the Final Four a year ago. 


They say that it takes maturity and championship experience to overcome hurdles like this. The Bulldogs didn’t have the latter as leverage, but they came with a significant experience of their own, too. 


The Sampaloc-based squad was long tagged as cellar dwellers; and when they finally had what seemed like a clear shot, they missed. Very badly. What was supposedly a victorious night turned out to be a very upsetting curtain call for a handful of players. The young blood witnessed their veterans shed tears inside the dugout as they were to bow out of the race empty handed. 


Suffice it to say, that memory was enough to get everyone to power through the next five sudden deaths: one against UE, two against ADMU and two against the finalists, FEU. 


The underdogs took down a powerhouse team the year before, and ended their campaign as runners-up. It seemed hard to believe, but even the Bulldogs knew it could be done. So with their heads to the sky and their hands to their heart, they soldiered on. In Coach Eric’s words, “we have nothing to lose and everything to gain”. 


When the boys were struggling to let go of the past and the frustrations that came with it, the coaching staff made it a point to remind them to continue to persevere, as they try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did and figure what to make out of it. 


Not knowing whether or not there truly was a light at the end of the tunnel, that’s exactly what they did. They picked themselves up, even dragged each other to practice need it be, and trusted that the years of struggles and hustles were necessary elements to what turned out to be their own Cinderella story.  This storybook wasn’t written in a span of months. It took them sixty years to reach their happy ending. And boy, it sure did make that championship sweeter. 


Together on three. One… two… three. Together. We are the Bulldogs and we finally brought it home. 


A faithful brotherhood playing selfless basketball. Your Season 77 champions, ladies and gentlemen.