The Sweetest Championship of All

It has been twenty years since the Green Archers won the 1998 UAAP men’s basketball championship. After all the the hardships and struggles the team went through in the many years prior, the day they clinched the title was indeed momentous.

Since this happened when the internet was still in its infancy, there’s not much online content available on this particular season other than the clip below which was digitally converted from a VHS recording.  (Millenials be like: What’s a VHS??)

For the benefit of those who were still not around or were too young during those days, allow me to give a brief recap on how that season went.

You see, La Salle entered UAAP Season 61 coming off four-straight runner-up finishes. For those who were following the team then, you know very well how painful that was especially since the Green Archers were always favored to win it but only to fall short come the finals. We all thought that 1997 will finally be our year after beating then four-time champion UST in a hard-fought semis series. Unfortunately, the result was still the same as another “Archer Slayer” was born in FEU’s Edwin Bacani. He turned out to be another Henry Ong, the one who always made the big shots and become the thorn on the side of La Salle.

After another frustrating season, it was time to make a change. Enter new coach Franz Pumaren, fresh out of retirement from the PBA. A former Green Archer, his past coaching experience was handling Magnolia for one conference in the semi-pro PBL.

The team was basically intact but they no longer had 2-time MVP Mark Telan around after already playing out his eligibility a season ago. Key returnees were Dino Aldeguer, Don Allado, Calijohn Orfrecio, Mon Jose and a sophomore scorer named Ren-Ren Ritualo.

La Salle has always been a good offensive team. The problem was on defense. If the Green Archers are to finally get over that championship hump, this is an area that they needed to work on. So coach Franz introduced a new defensive strategy that puts pressure on the opposing team the entire length of the court before and after the inbound pass. This goal is to force a turnover or make a steal which would result to a quick basket. Yes, this is what you call the Full-Court press.

With a more determined mindset, the Green Archers nearly swept the elimination round with their only loss coming at the hands of UST in overtime.

Entering the Final 4, La Salle would face the Growling Tigers once again but this time, the team had the twice-to-beat advantage. It was another tightly-contested series that went the full distance with the Green Archers prevailing again to set up a finals rematch with FEU.

La Salle thrashed the Tamaraws by 25 points in Game 1. A win away from that elusive championship trophy, there was no stopping the Green Archers this time from its date with destiny. But FEU would not give up without a fight as they went toe-to-toe in Game 2.

Holding on to a slim lead in the final minute and FEU threatening to force a winner-take-all match, Ritualo drilled a booming triple on the left wing and followed it up with a steal  and was eventually fouled taking a shot with 45 seconds left.

Up by 4 with 20 ticks remaining, the Green Archers dribbled the clock out with the Tamaraws no longer trying to foul. Dino Aldeguer, on the verge of winning his first championship after three years of finishing 2nd threw the ball to the crowd as the final buzzer sounded.

Pandemonium immediately followed as the students, alumni and team supporters stormed into the court in jubilation. Most of them have probably long waited for this moment to happen after years of disappointment starting in 1991 when La Salle was robbed of a championship because of a “technicality”. The pain and disappointment is finally over. The Green Archers are back as champions of the UAAP.

La Salle went on to build its own dynasty as they would win three more titles in the seasons that follow.

But of all the championships they have won in the league, this has got to be the sweetest. It came with a great backstory.