(Editor’s note: Yahoo! PH Sports looks back at the year that was with a series of blogs recalling the highlights and lowlights of Philippine sports.)
What was supposed to be an awful year for the Red Lions turned out to be one of the most glorious for them.
The defending NCAA champs entered 2012 with a very uncertain future, what with a series of unfortunate events (check my November 2 blog “All’s well that ends well with Red Lions”). A brawl inside the San Beda gym in late 2011 led to the suspension of key players and a two-year ban on chief tactician Frankie Lim. But the league announced the verdict in April of 2012, even when speculations of the punishments already spread much earlier. The Red Lions, the most dominant team in the NCAA in the last six years, looked headed for a very rough season. The morale was low. Many thought the Lions would be lucky to even make the Final Four.
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But San Beda College, the NCAA’s only remaining founding member, and top patron Manny V. Pangilinan immediately made key adjustments, starting with the appointment of Ronnie Magsanoc as replacement for Frankie. The team underwent other major changes, including the appointment of this writer as new team manager. These changes became a huge challenge for this team that was nurtured by Lim and his staff for five years. But the Lions adapted well and welcomed a new family.
The NCAA season began with San Beda having just six players in its first assignment against the Arellano Chiefs. Rookie Olaide Adeogun was slapped a four-game suspension while the rest of the squad had to skip one game for the brawl in the previous year. Everybody expected the defending back-to-back champs to suffer their first loss of the season on their very first game, something that has not happened since 2006. But the now revered “Super Six”, composed of the team’s third unit, surprised many with a spectacular 81-71 conquest of the Chiefs.
This morale-boosting win brought back hope to the Mendiola campus that perhaps a third straight title was not beyond reach. But as expected, the season would not be too friendly to the Lions as in the previous ones. In their third game, the Lions faced a new-look Perpetual Help Altas team that was competitive in all positions. It was a pulsating match from start to finish. But the Altas scored the 88-87 overtime win, ending a six-year losing streak at the hands of the Bedans.
After four games and a 3-1 card, Adeogun got the green light to suit up for San Beda. The Red Lions survived four more tough games before the much-awaited dance with their arch rivals in the last three years, the San Sebastian Stags.
But the rematch of the 2011 finalists was dominated by the Stags. San Sebastian’s Big 3 – Calvin Abueva, Ronald Pascual and Ian Sanggalang – plus Dexter Maiquez, proved too much to handle for the Lions. Even Adeogun struggled the entire game. In the end, the Stags prevailed convincingly, 80-71.
The second round was pretty much the same except for the resurgence of the Letran Knights, with the return of big man Raymond Almazan. The Knights almost completed a sweep of this round to climb the ladder from seventh place. They even repeated their 80-74 opening day win versus the Stags with an equally impressive 82-67 victory in the second round. But it was San Beda that halted the sweep with a 68-62 conquest of the Knights.
What the Knights have done twice however, the Lions could not achieve – beating San Sebastian. The second round encounter between the Lions and Stags was again supposed to be a thrilling one. But Abueva and Co. just won’t allow the Bedans the satisfaction of savoring a victory over them as the Stags drubbed the Lions, 69-55.
Then came the Final Four matches featuring San Beda against Perpetual Help and Letran against San Sebastian. The Lions and Altas again engaged in a nip and tuck affair until the final minutes. But the defending champions proved steadier in end game and gained the first finals berth with a 56-52 win over the hard-fighting Altas. On the other hand, the Knights forced a rubber match against the twice-to-beat Stags with a 92-74 upset. In the battle for the second finals ticket, the Knights continued to be the thorn on the side of the Stags with a heart-pounding 73-70 win to earn the right to face the Lions.
The classic finals between two of the old NCAA rivals drew tremendous attention from the entire local basketball scene. The demand for tickets was astonishing. Both San Beda and Letran were tied with 16 NCAA men’s basketball diadems each. The battle for No. 17 added more spice to the delicious series.
Game 1 was played at the Mall of Asia Arena on October 18. The fierce battle was decided just in the final few seconds after a see saw game all throughout. But the Lions’ showed why they are the league’s best defensive team with a gem of a defensive strategy that prevented the Knights from putting up a good shot in the last play. San Beda took Game 1 via a 62-60 squeaker.
Game 2 was all about the Knights. Letran displayed the fire that catapulted the Knights from the lower half of the standings to the championship round. They dominated from start to finish and held off a late rally by the Lions to tie the series with an emphatic 64-55 win.
In Game 3, the Red Lions could turn a grueling year into a sweet season in just 40 minutes of championship-caliber game. Magsanoc did a masterful job of pushing the right buttons to fire up his embattled team.
From the get-go, the Lions reminded the NCAA why they were the most dominant team in the last six years. In both ends of the floor, the Lions aggressively seized control of the game. In the first ten minutes of action, it became clear which team would take home a 17th championship. San Beda finished the season with a strong finishing kick, a 67-39 victory to bag its third straight title.
Only three Lions played their last game in the NCAA on October 26 – skipper Jake Pascual, Anjo Caram and Melo Lim. This makes San Beda once again the heavy favorite in 2013. However, rookie champion coach Magsanoc has announced his resignation during the team’s Christmas Party two weeks ago, citing family time as his main reason. The school has not announced a replacement yet although team consultant and NLEX head coach Boyet Fernandez is being strongly considered.
Perhaps 2013 will be kinder to the Red Lions even as they look forward to another challenging NCAA season.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.