La Salle-UST Rivalry: That Bitterweet ‘90s Show

Henry Ong, Dennis Espino, Dale Singson, Bal David, Chris Cantonjos, Estong Ballesteros, Richard Yee, If these names don’t make you heave a disheartening sigh, grit your teeth or snort in bitterness, then it means you were spared all the suffering and heartbreak of the furious ‘90s DLSU-UST rivalry in UAAP men’s basketball.

For those yet to be born during the years 1994-1999, or not even old enough to comprehend and appreciate ten young men running around trying to put a ball in a hoop more times than the other team, here are the numbers: Four finals matches, with UST winning three, and two final four matches, with the Green Archers coming out on top in both.

There is more than one way to try and encapsulate those years, depending on how much heartbreak you still carry to this day. It can fairly be called the “always the bridesmaid” years as much as it can also be called the pre-salvation, redemption and glory years of the 4-peat Franz Pumaren era.

But for someone who sat in those stands for those games, when the chants and banners had more teeth and hit a little too low south of the waistline, I have to admit it was difficult trying to vividly remember everything. Attribute it to age, a forgettable era wherein grunge music and a college education were the best things I came away with, or to the refusal to open old wounds, but it’s all a blur to me now.

I gladly welcome readers with better memories to pitch in their own takeaways from those years as I make an attempt to delve into them:

After the final four format was first introduced in 1993, with UST sweeping the eliminations and as per league rules was automatically declared champions (ominously, the Green Archers were in second place at the end of that season), both teams met the following year, in the finals of Season 57. La Salle, the #1 seed, won the first game 77-74, only to lose the next two. Which brings us to a name that I avoided uttering for many years in fear of awakening old nightmares: Henry Ong.

In a third game where the Green archers led by double digits late in the game, the unassuming Ong armed with his unorthodox form started heaving and sinking shots from beyond the arc, allowing UST to clinch the championship, 77-76. And for good measure, throw in Bal David making crucial free throws to ice the win. And finally a memory I’ve tried to tiptoe around as well: Elmer Lago falling short by an inch on a putback at the final buzzer.

Not painful enough? That was only the beginning. In the 1995 finals, with Jason Webb shrugging off all the manic chants and playing the would-be hero for La Salle, it was a virtual repeat of the previous finals series: La Salle winning the first game, only to lose the next two. 1996 proved to be even worse as both teams clashed in the finals for the third straight year and despite winning both games in the eliminations, #1 seed La Salle ended up being swept in the championship series, with Henry Ong once again playing the main role.  Three straight finals matchups with UST. Three straight heartbreaking bridesmaid finishes.

Bitterwseet revenge finally arrived in 1997 in the final four. Banking on late-game heroics by Dino Aldegeur and Mark Telan to force overtime during the knockout game, The Green Archers fittingly dethroned the 4-peat champions, only to fall short against FEU in the finals. Poetic justice falling just a bit short. But bitterness that year was just a bit sweet enough for me.

Because the following year is one I’m very certain stands out in every rabid La Sallian hoop fan’s mind: the dawn of the Franz Pumaren glory years. Losing only twice during the eliminations, top seeded La Salle eliminated UST in the knockout game of the final four, on their way to their first of four straight championships.

And it all came full circle in 1999. There was definitely no other more fitting way to close out the bittersweet decade by meeting UST in the finals for one last time. Turning the tables in high dramatic fashion with La Salle losing the first game and winning the second, in the final game of the series four words resonate more than anything else: Dino Aldegeur’s Hail Mary.  Hitting a clutch three-point shot from top of the key to force overtime, the Green Archers bagged their second straight championship, 78-75.

With another decade passing, from 2000-09, where La Salle only lost once to UST, both teams once again face each other in the finals of UAAP men’s basketball. There are so many other images, highlights and heroic players that were instrumental in those bittersweet years, all of which have really nothing to do with the finals matchup about to begin. Nothing, expect the rich history and nearly unmatched pride of two institutions.

All games need a subplot, a running story to make us cheer louder and take defeats a little more harder. It’s all for the fans, who after all, play a huge role in the world of UAAP basketball. However it makes me wonder how Coach Juno Sauler would respond to questions trying to dig up an interesting storyline, placing the current finals matchup in the context of those battles in the ‘90s.

I’m waiting for any brave reporter or sports writer to ask him such questions, so we can hear something like “I don’t know, my players who were already born were still too busy discovering cartoons back then.” Or in light of him being part of some of those teams, he’d probably give us something along the lines of “What can I say? Those memories are about as old as hammer pants and The Lion King.”

As a fan cheering from the stands, whether you choose to take those years to add fuel to the fire, or simply let old wounds remain untouched, you can be certain that this present finals matchup of contrasting coaches and styles will be a welcome addition to that once-storied ‘90s rivalry. Let’s get it on.