MANILA, Philippines – The UST Growling Tigers were the biggest surprise of the UAAP Season 82 men’s basketball tournament as Aldin Ayo’s group of relentless overachievers from España made it all the way to the finals despite finishing the elimination round with a risky 8-6 showing.
Before challenging but ultimately falling prey to an undefeated Ateneo Blue Eagles team, which won a third straight championship, the Growling Tigers completed a Final Four upset by overcoming the twice-to-beat UP Fighting Maroons, who were aiming for a return trip to the finals. Overall, UST went 4-0 against UP in 2019.
The trip to the finals was sweet vindication for Ayo, who moved to University of Sto Tomas despite winning NCAA and UAAP titles in his previous coaching jobs with the Letran Knights and De La Salle Green Archers, respectively.
In December, Ayo also signed a three-year contract extension that will keep him as UST’s head coach until 2023, putting an end to rumors about another departure which began to circulate towards the end of Season 82.
Contributing to Ayo’s dedication to his Growling Tigers was the fact that UST’s varsity team began preparations for another UAAP Finals run as early as two weeks after its finals defeat against Ateneo back in November.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic that prompted many countries to impose a community quarantine, the Growling Tigers, like their 7 UAAP counterparts, will eventually have to start from square one.
“Malaki yung apekto sa amin, kasi we started early,” Ayo admitted in an exclusive interview with Rappler.
“Ang aga kasi ng build-up. Ang pinaka-pahinga lang talaga namin noong Christmas break, eh, pero first week of January, we started preparing na kasi sumali kami sa D-League, and sumali kami sa PCCL.”
(It really affected us because we started early. We had an early build-up. We only slowed down during the Christmas break, but first week of January, we started preparing because we joined the D-League and PCCL.)
Ayo’s aim was for his team to gain confidence through off-season tournaments in anticipation for the main UAAP prize, and felt his Growling Tigers were on the right track before sporting events were suspended for health reasons.
In their D-League opener, UST blew out TIP led by the explosive scoring of youngsters Deo Cuajao and Jun Asuncion, then scored a double-digit victory against Diliman College spearheaded by the 24 points of reigning UAAP MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo.
“In a way nakakafrustrate, pero nandoon din yung idea na hindi natin controlled eh,” Ayo said, putting things in perspective.
“You just have to do your part na kung ano yung kayang gawin, yun na lang muna, then just accept the situation kasi wala naman may gusto nito. Siguraduhin lang na lahat, tama yung ginagawa, sumusunod sa mga guidelines.”
(In a way it’s frustrating, but we have no control over this. You just have to do your part, do what you can for the meantime, then just accept the situation because no one wanted this. Just make sure that you’re doing the right thing, that you’re following the guidelines.)
Ayo returned to his home province of Sorsogon with his family on March 13, just days before the Luzon lockdown commenced.
But before doing so, he couldn’t help but feel anxious about how the pandemic would affect the daily lives of his players, some of whom do not have family to take care of them in Metro Manila, where residents have been instructed to stay home for nearly two months.
“Actually I was worried sa situation, kasi siyempre as a coach, parang mga anak mo na ang mga ‘yan eh. Siyempre ang iniisip mo, well-fed [ba] ang mga yan?
“I tried sana dalhin yung mga players dito sa Sorsogon before the lockdown, kaya lang the university advised me na if you’re going to do that, kailangan ng waiver sa mga parents. ‘Yung mga parents naman, siyempre, ang daming uncertainties eh. Naiintindihan ko situation nila kung bakit hindi nila pinayagan.”
(Actually I was worried about the situation, because as a coach, they’re like your kids. You think, ‘are they well-fed’? I tried to bring the players here in Sorsogon before the lockdown, but the university advised me that if I’m going to do that, I need a waiver from the parents. The parents, of course, had many uncertainties. I understand why they didn’t allow it.)
Since arriving at UST, Ayo has been the driving force of a culture change for the program of the Growling Tigers, who went from suffering consecutive losing seasons to returning as UAAP title contenders.
The 42-years-young head coach personally saw to the recruitment of many of UST’s new standouts, and has taken a personal interest in their lives beyond athletics.
Thanks to Ayo, the university, and team managers, UST’s players have received cash to help cope with the times. This is particularly helpful for those who are most in need.
“May mga players kami – hindi naman lahat ah – may mga players kami na alam ko kapag umuwi, mahihirapan sila sa pang araw-araw because hindi naman lahat may kaya eh,” he said.
“Until now yun ang iniisip ko, pero nagawan na rin namin ng paraan with the help of all managers na kahit hindi namin kasama, natutulungan namin, napapadalan namin kahit papaano.
“I’m very grateful sa ginagawa ng university namin, even though nasa ganitong situation. ‘Yung allowance ng mga players, regular na napapadala. Malaking tulong yun.”
(We have some players who have a tough time with their day-to-day expenses when they go home because not everyone is well off. Until now that’s what I think about, but with the help of all managers, we get to support them. I’m very thankful to our university that the players still get their allowance. That’s a big help for them.)
To help keep the boys in playing shape, the UST staff has sent workouts for them to do at their respective homes. Whenever they are permitted and ready to train as a unit again, the main goal will remain the same.
Arguably the biggest play in the deciding Game 2 between UST and UP in the Final Four was the clutch triple of graduating guard Renzo Subido, who put the Growling Tigers ahead after they rallied against a four-point Fighting Maroons lead with under two minutes remaining in the heat-racing contest.
In addition to being Ayo’s floor general for key stretches, Subido was also the big-shot taker for UST when the team needed a go-to guy the most.
Now that he’s moved on to the pro level, there is the impending issue of who will be UST’s leading man come critical situations.
“Siyempre mahirap palitan yung katulad ni Renzo,” Ayo said of his former veteran.
“I think may mga players naman na who will step up for him, especially yung mga rookies namin last season, one of them is Mark Nonoy.”
(Of course it’s hard to replace Renzo. I think we have players who will step up for him, especially our rookies last season, one of them is Mark Nonoy.)
Nonoy, who was named Season 82’s Rookie of the Year, had a memorable showing in the finals against Ateneo by averaging 20 points in the series while going head-to-head against SJ Belangel, another young star on the rise.
“He’s going to be one year older, so he already has experience,” Ayo said of the incoming sophomore from Negros.
“And aside from him, we have Paul Manalang from our reserves. He already served residency. I feel Paul can help us.”
Manalang, a former standout from National University’s powerhouse high school program, is also the younger brother of former UE point guard Philip Manalang.
Another reality that Ayo, UST, and the entire UAAP must face is that the league’s basketball tournaments will be unlikely to return in September due to the lasting repercussions of COVID-19. (READ: No UAAP basketball this year a possibility)
Rebo Saguisag, a former UAAP commissioner and now executive director, said the league’s board of representatives will convene in May to discuss the future of the UAAP.
Most of Season 82's second semester sports were canceled due to the pandemic, but UST will likely emerge overall champions once again. (READ: UST likely to win 4th straight double UAAP general championship)
“Ang una kong iniisip, ‘Hopefully, magkaroon ng UAAP,’” said Ayo. “Sana magkaroon ng solution yung situation natin ngayon. Kung January [ang start], I think it will be ideal. At least [there’s] ample time to prepare, hindi madaliin.
“Kung mag resume kailangan bigyan ng enough time to prepare kasi kung hindi, baka injuries abutin ng mga players, or baka maapektuhan din because hindi ganoon ka ready kasi hindi nakakapagensayo.”
(The first thing I thought, ‘ Hopefully there will be a UAAP. I hope there will be a solution to our situation now. If we’d start in January, I think it will be Ideal. At least there’s ample time to prepare, we’re not rushing. If we resume, there should be enough time to prepare because we might end up with a lot of players getting injured.They won’t be ready because they weren’t able to train.)
Ayo sees the shift in calendar as a consequential factor all UAAP schools will have to deal with.
But when the basketball tournament does eventually return, Ayo says Ateneo, the reigning champs, will be the team to beat, even if they’ve lost key veterans like Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and the Nieto twins of Matt and Mike.
“Yung Ateneo naman kasi, even though madaming players ang nawala sa kanila, yung system nila in place na eh. So ‘yung continuity ng program at system nila, nandoon pa rin naman eh. So sila pa din.”
“And siyempre yung La Salle,” Ayo suddenly added while talking about contenders. “I think magbabago yung takbo ng La Salle ngayon because of coach Derrick (Pumaren). I know him also. He’s one of the best coaches in the collegiate game.”
(Even if Ateneo lost many players, their system is in place. The continuity of their program and system is there, so they’re still contenders. And of course, there’s La Salle. I think La Salle will run differently under coach Derrick Pumaren.)
Ayo also sees two more teams that can be major threats.
“Of course, siyempre ‘yung UP. Nandoon pa rin ‘yung core nila even though nawala yung Gomez de Liaño brothers (Juan and Javi), pero nandoon pa rin si Ricci (Rivero), nandoon parin si Kobe (Paras).”
(Of course, UP will be there. Their core is still there even if they lost brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño. Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras are still there.)
Ayo coached Rivero while the two represented La Salle from 2016-2017.
“I [also] think Adamson [will be a contender because] they had good rookies last season... Just like us, one year older, more mature, and [they’re getting the] system of coach Franz (Pumaren).”
Ayo, however, is also proceeding with caution, believing that every team will be competitive.
“It’s going to be an unpredictable Season 83.”
When will that take place?
Right now, only time can tell. – Rappler.com