College Hoops

The streak is over

UPIS Junior Fighting Maroons (Photo by Sid Ventura)Last Saturday, the Adamson Falcons ended two UAAP streaks. First, of course, was Ateneo's 13-game winning streak. There will be no more 14-0 sweep and automatic finals berth for the defending champions. The Falcons' masterful 62-46 win also ended their personal losing streak against the Blue Eagles, which began in 1997 and had stretched to 29 games. So with one big win, Adamson put a halt to two major streaks.

But unknown to many, around the same time Adamson was putting the finishing touches on its big streak-busting win, another streak was also coming to an end a few kilometers down Aurora Boulevard from the Araneta Coliseum. For over at the Blue Eagle Gym, the UPIS Junior Fighting Maroons and the UE Pages were locked in an epic battle for seventh place in the UAAP juniors division. The game was close all throughout, and eventually went into overtime.

Now, in terms of the race for the junior crown, this game had no bearing whatsoever. FEU, La Salle-Zobel, NU and Ateneo had all locked up their places in the Final Four. Entering the game, UE was 1-12 and UPIS was 0-13. But for the Junior Maroons, the game was about as important as Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Because in truth, 0-13 was actually just a small part of a longer losing streak that stretched way back to 2008 and had piled up to a depressing 0-55. UPIS had not won a game since September 2007, registering identical 0-14 records in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And it wasn't just the quantity of losses that grated on the coaches and players, it was the quality, too. Among the lowlights of The Streak:

A 95-30 loss to the Adamson Baby Falcons in July 2008.

An even worse 96-23 drubbing at the hands of the same Baby Falcons a month later, including a 28-2 first-quarter scoreline.

A 117-28 murder inflicted by the Ateneo Blue Eaglets just days after the second Adamson drubbing. (That's an 89-point loss for those who don't have a calculator nearby.)

An 86-36 shellacking by DLSZ in July 2009.

A 104-55 walloping from FEU-FERN in August 2009 that saw Baby Tamaraw Terrence Romeo singlehandedly outscore the entire UPIS team 83-55.

At the end of the 2010 season, then UPIS coach Chappy Callanta had had enough and resigned (can't blame him). But before he did, he was able to recruit several very young but talented players, giving hope for the revival of the once-competitive UPIS program and more important, a possible end to the losing streak this year.

Once this year's juniors season got underway, though, it looked like another 0-14 record was in the offing. UPIS went 0-7 in the first round, including routine blowouts at the hands of the powerhouse teams from DLSZ (102-48), FEU (92-46) and Ateneo (79-54). There were signs of life, though, as the Junior Maroons lost by only six to UST. In fact, they very nearly ended the losing streak on August 9 when they found themselves ahead by 22 points at the half against UE. The lead was still eight with 35 seconds left in the game, and that ever-elusive breakthrough win seemed secured. But somehow, UE was able to tie it up and force overtime, and went on to win by 10. Make that 0-49.

The streak was at 52 losses when the entire coaching staff led by head coach Bunky Bacay abruptly resigned. The official reason for such remains unclear, but apparently a rift had been growing between the coaches and the players' parents. Former UP head coach Allan Gregorio, whose son Paolo is on the team, was asked to take over for the last four games on an interim basis.

Despite the coaching change, the losing continued, although in less embarrassing fashion. In their first game under Allan, the team lost to FEU by "only" 12 this time around (they lost by 46 in the first round). DLSZ clobbered them by over 20, but the team nearly pulled the rug from under the defending champion Blue Eaglets, rallying from 11 points down in the last four-plus minutes before losing 66-62.

The streak was now at 0-55, and their last chance to avoid a fourth straight winless season was against UE, the team they should have beaten in the first round. Even though they were mired in seventh place, the Pages certainly did not want to be the team that would give UPIS its first victory after four winless years, and early on they threatened to pull away, going up 27-18 late in the second period. UPIS came back to narrow the gap to 27-28 at halftime, though, and the two teams went on to wage a seesaw battle the rest of the way.

The end of the third period saw UE still up 43-40. The Pages extended the lead to 49-42 with a little over eight minutes left in the game, but the Junior Maroons kept things interesting by uncorking an 8-0 run to grab the lead at 50-49. UPIS went ahead by three, but UE tied it up at 55 with 3:38 remaining, then regained the lead at 57-56 with only 1:27 left. This one was going down the wire, and the predominantly UPIS crowd was collectively thinking, "Oh please, not again."

The score was deadlocked at 61 with around 20 seconds left, UE ball. A UE player (couldn't see who) had a good look at the basket from the right flank, and he took an unmolested shot with around two seconds left. As everyone in the Blue Eagle Gym held their breath, the ball bounced off the far rim and out. Overtime.

UPIS went ahead by four in the extra period, but as expected UE came right back to tie it up. It looked like the Junior Maroons were going to have to thread the eye of the needle for that elusive win. The tension was too much for one parent to bear, though. As overtime was winding down, Hazel Ancheta, mother of UPIS player Paolo Ancheta, quietly stood up and left the gymnasium, preferring to wait outside for the final result. She had had her heart broken so many times, and she wasn't sure if there was space in there for one more heartbreak. "I just couldn't stand it," she said afterwards. "I had to leave."

It was 71-70 in favor of the Junior Maroons with 21 seconds left in OT when a UE player was sent to the line. He spilt his free throws to tie it up, and UPIS had the last shot of the game.

Of course, the boys just had to do it with drama, almost as if they wanted to give the crowd a nervous breakdown.  The ball was knocked loose around 10 feet to the right of the UPIS basket. Not again. UE appeared to gain control for a brief moment, but lost possession again. No one could get their hands on that damn ball until Adam Lopez, a UPIS forward, found himself holding it under the UPIS basket. He laid the ball in off the glass, and drew a foul to boot. Scoreboard: UPIS 73, UE 71. 1.9 seconds left. Lopez intentionally missed his bonus free throw, and the game was over. The Streak was over.

The last time UPIS players whooped it up and cried on the basketball court was nearly nine years ago, when guys like Cruz and Manlapaz and Villanueva had just given the school its first UAAP juniors crown. Winning for the first time in 56 tries may not merit a victory parade or a congratulatory banner, but the feeling was just as sweet.

After the game, in the euphoric UPIS dugout, Gregorio praised the boys for their effort, while also tipping his hat at Callanta and Bacas for the thankless jobs they put themselves through. At the same time, though, he said he wasn't sure if he would be back as head coach.

When contacted, Callanta said he was "very happy for the school and most especially the boys and the parents." Although he regretted not being there for the win, he said he was thankful when he heard that Gregorio told the team to dedicate the win to the previous coaches.

"I saw the boys grow up both as people and as players, and even if we didn't get a win for three seasons, my plan was to really develop them to be better players and people and I'm glad they are still getting better."

Whoever takes over will have some material to work with. Only two players are graduating, the positive result of Callanta's decision to think long-term and recruit mostly first- and second-year players last year.  A return to the glory days of the early 2000s might not happen right away, but the good news is that the UP Alumni Association and the UP Diliman administration are joining forces to make the program more competitive again.

And hopefully, it won't take another 56 games before the team celebrates again.

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