MANILA, Philippines – Dressed in black but still noticeable under the bright lights of the Mall of Asia Arena, Rhenz Abando watched from the sidelines as his UST Growling Tigers defeated the UP Fighting Maroons in what was arguably the most thrilling match of UAAP Season 82. The game was played on a Wednesday night, but had every bit of the suspense usually reserved for primetime weekend showdowns.
Renzo Subido – Aldin Ayo’s veteran Tiger – took control down the stretch by making the shots that counted most. At 6-5, UST is now only one loss behind the 6-4 Fighting Maroons for the remaining twice-to-beat advantage, which will come down to a late-season chase involving their motivated rivals behind them.
Soulemane Chabi Yo, Sherwin Concepcion, Brent Paraiso, Zach Huang, CJ Cansino, Mark Nonoy, and the rest in UST’s run-and-gun Mayhem were sensational as they matched the Fighting Maroons blow for blow. That they accomplished an outstanding win without Abando – the breakout star of 2019 – made it all the more impressive.
It reinforced the thought that UST has enough depth to compete for a trip to the finals in a few weeks, and with a player of the La Union native’s caliber, University of Sto Tomas has the level of athleticism to match any other team, including reigning champion Ateneo.
It didn’t take long for controversy to strike after.
According to credible reports, Abando’s benching may have had to do with his decision to suddenly transfer out of UST in the middle of their title quest. Ayo was mum about why he sat his prized recruit following the game against UP, and it was the same response given by his players, who opted for silence as a regulation of team policy.
From whispers to actual news, it’s been reported two schools attempted to pry the 21-year-old away from UST. College basketball enthusiasts took to social media to post their thoughts, with many surmising the poachers were the usual suspects. Sources informed Rappler the final outcome of the entire ordeal would be determined by Ayo, and on Thursday afternoon, he finally confirmed through The Varsitarian – UST’s official school publication – that Abando will remain in España.
“[He] knows that he is here to play and to study, establish his name in the UAAP,” Ayo was quoted. The varsity coach, who has held posts at Letran and De La Salle, was angered at the thought of a rival school having the audacity to contact his player in the middle of the season, regardless of whether it was a legitimate offer or a way to cause internal friction at an important time for UST.
“For me, that’s very unethical. In the middle of the season, offering to contact a player. Ini-insulto mo ‘yong bata at players (You’re insulting the kid and the players),” Ayo said to The Varsitarian.
It’s also an insult to what college basketball is supposed to stand for.
In an ironic turn of events, the situation nearly mirrors a similar event from 2017, when rumors circulated during the Season 80 men’s basketball tournament that Ayo, at that time coaching the Green Archers, was going to leave for the Growling Tigers. Of course, these rumors were never confirmed, but Ayo did move to University of Sto Tomas after he coached De La Salle to the finals.
Another important point: Ayo told the school paper Abando never entertained the deals he received, even if they were aggressively offered.
UST’s young star, who’s averaging 11.8 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks a game, will be in uniform when his team goes for win No. 7 against the NU Bulldogs in Antipolo on Saturday, October 19.
In a game that will be intriguing for many reasons, the Growling Tigers will be glad to have Abando on their side of the court in what could be part two of both teams’ last epic overtime collision. With the Final Four so close, emotions will run rampant.
If the reported offers are true – and Ayo confirmed as much – then there is a bigger problem at hand.
Unlike collegiate sports in the United States, financial rewards given to collegiate athletes in the Philippines are unmodulated, which puts smaller schools at a disadvantage.
Basketball programs have convinced both recruits and even coaches from other universities to jump ship multiple times in the past, and that will continue to manifest unless the UAAP develops mandatory rules for that exact process, in addition to the subsequent residency period.
A major difference is most of these past transfers were completed after seasons came to a close. For another institution to make an offer in the middle of the UAAP elimination round is brazen and problematic. “All For More,” is the league’s slogan this year, and this latest fiasco to steal Abando from UST stands against that belief.
Aside for when it’s time to deem a player’s eligibility, the UAAP has historically been hands-off with regulating how its 8 participating universities operate as far as attaining new recruits go.
With an event like this taking place while the basketball season is about to hit its stretch run, one can’t help but wonder if the collegiate league will choose a stance in the discussion, or possibly act as a moderator.
“In the long run, any form of poaching of student-athletes will prove detrimental to the growth of the league. It is actually tantamount to stealing,” said a UAAP coach, who remains anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
“No team is going to benefit from it as the bottom line of that transaction is money,” he told Rappler on Thursday. “It defeats the principle of being a student-athlete which is to allow the player to have a wholistic growth from a particular university. When one poaches, it is a given that one lures the student athletes for greater financial returns. That reasoning alone corrupts the whole system.”
Ayo and UST did a great job of halting the flames from growing into a full-on fire by quickly finding a solution. Will the repercussions derail UST’s team chemistry – as the champion head coach feared it might on Wednesday – or will it be a rallying point for a talented team to go on a run to the finals?
As Abando renewed his commitment to UST on Thursday, a potential crisis was momentarily stopped for UST.
Moving forward, the question is when – not if – something like this takes place again.
And when it does, what will be different? – Rappler.com