Flashback Friday: When St. Benilde Blazers were Kings of NCAA

College of St. Benilde ended the 92nd NCAA men’s basketball season on the wrong side of history.

For what started as a season of high hopes for the Blazers, ended in a nightmarish way, a rather forgettable 1-17 win-loss record in the country’s oldest collegiate basketball league.

The Blazers though were able to close their infamous season with a 65-61 win against also-ran Lyceum on Sept. 23 and in the process, avoid a winless performance in the NCAA.

The win at least, salvaged some measure of pride for the Gabby Velasco-mentored St. Benilde after a series of heartaches and disappointments.

But one thing is sure, the school’s record 17 straight losses to start the season will forever be part of the NCAA’s basketball history.

Just 16 years ago, St. Benilde won the league championship behind a young core that included 1999 Rookie of the Year Sunday Salvacion, Jondan Salvador, Al Magpayo, Jay Coching, Mark Magsumbol and playmaker Elvis Tolentino.

That batch brought honor to the school, which back then, was just in its fourth year in the NCAA. The Blazers were mentored by the late Dong Vergeire.

But in less than two decades, the Blazers went from the top of the league to the favorite whipping team, a situation that doesn’t sit well for Salvador, who retired from the PBA this year and Salvacion, who continues to be a reliable outside gunner for GlobalPort.

Heart strong

The burly Salvador said it is hard to accept the fact that the Blazers have gone so low in the school’s 20th season in the collegiate league.

jondan-salvador-barako-bull-pba-file-photoThe 36-year-old PBA journeyman shared that in the games he watched this season, what’s evidently lacking in Velasco’s crew is that big, fighting heart, an intangible that he said, was present when the Blazers defeated the San Sebastian Stags in the 2000 Finals.

“Puro bata kami nun so si Sunday na ang pinaka-beterano namin,” recalled Salvador, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 PBA Draft.

“Siyempre sobrang napaka-sarap ng feeling kasi parang three years pa lang kami sa NCAA tapos champion agad.  Tapos rookie year pa namin ni Al,” he added.

Salvador, known as a tough inside player and defender, remembered how difficult the season was during Vergeire’s first year as head coach.

“Sobrang hirap talaga kasi nag-start kami from 0-5. Walang nanonood sa amin, walang crowd kundi banda lang ng Benilde. Walang naniniwala sa amin,” he said.

On the other hand, Salvacion said what kept the team glued together was their decision to communicate outside the court.

sunday-salvacion-globalport-batang-pier-pba-file-9-23-2016Considering that the team was composed of rookies and sophomores, along with a mixture of players coming from the Big City and the province, chemistry was a challenge in the first round.

“Naalala ko sa first round, lagi kami talo. Wala kami halos panalo. Then nagusap-usap kami sa second round, at dun, nanalo kami ng straight hanggang sa umabot kami sa semis,” said the 37-year-old Salvacion, who went on to become the 2002 NCAA Most Valuable Player.

With Vergeire reminding them to just compete for every possession, Salvador said they began to play in unison during the second round, a reason why the team managed to win seven of its last nine games en route to booking the fourth and last spot in the semifinals.

The road to the Finals wasn’t easy though since the Blazers had to face the top seed Perpetual Altas in the Final Four.

Perpetual was favored to win the title due to the presence of stars like Chester Tolomia, Gilbert Malabanan, Milo Bonifacio and sweet-shooting Jojo Manalo.

“Lagi lang sinasabi ni coach Dong, basta lumaban lang kami hangga’t di pa nag-buzzer saka bigay mo best mo,” said Salvador, who was plucked out of University of Santo Tomas’ B team to play for St. Benilde.

“So nung time na iyun, naging maganda ang chemistry namin, kasi nung bago kami, di kami magkakakilala so nagka-kanya kanya kami.  Siyempre mga rookies gusto mag-score, gusto magpakita, eh di rin pala ganun,” explained the left-handed undersized big man.

“That time, tinalo namin talaga yung pinaka-malakas. Eh favorite ang Perpetual kasi parang talo lang nila dalawa eh. So kami natapos ng elimination ng 7-7, tapos sila (Altas) 12-2,” he said.

“Nanalo yata kami sa quotient kaya pumasok kami sa Final Four, tapos yung Perpetual talaga ang pinakamalaking isda na tinalo namin.”

Once the Blazers reached the Finals, support from the students and the school were evident, giving them the extra boost as they defeated the Stags in the best-of-three championship series.

Discipline and hardwork

Salvacion said winning an NCAA basketball championship has no shortcut.

Players have to endure the countless hours working out at the gym, shooting hoops before and after practice, along with getting ample rest time.

The sweet-shooting wingman said he had big dreams when he landed in Manila after learning to play basketball in his province in Surigao del Sur.

“Lagi ko lang ginagawa nuon, hours before practice nandun ako sa gym. Nagsu-shooting ako. Tapos after practice, one hour uli saka di ako gumigimik,” he said.

“Sa gabi, 8 p.m. tulog na ako kasi gigising ako ng maaga para mag-jogging kasi mas maganda pa rin kung lagi kang nasa kundisyon,” explained Salvacion, the 11th overall pick of Ginebra in the 2003 PBA Draft.

On the other hand, Salvador reminded St. Benilde players that in order to redeem themselves from their abysmal NCAA season, one just can’t be contented with just playing in the league.

Instead, he challenged the players to work hard and aim high.

“Siguro mga dalawa o tatlong laro lang pinanuod ko this season, pero wala, di kasi sila nakikipag-palitan ng mukha eh,” observed Salvador, known for his physical plays underneath the basket.

Salvador added: “Kami nga, syempre, di rin naman kami laking mayaman, kumbaga simple lang, pero nakaka-survive.  Talagang nakaka-laban at may gustong marating.”

“Di ko naman sa inaano iyan pero puro mayayaman mga (St. Benilde) players (today) eh so wala silang motivation, iyun yung exact words.  Kaya kahit anong galing ang coach pero kung ganyan ang mga players mahirap manalo,” he added.

As the Blazers go back to the drawing boards, Salvacion said it is important for the players to make an assessment of what happened during the season.

While he understands that competition in the NCAA is a lot tougher due to the presence imports, yet, that should push them to strive even harder and prove that they belong in the league.

“Nagulat lang ako nung makita ko na 0-15 ang standings. Parang di ako makapaniwala,” he said.

“Parang rookie year ko nung 1999, pero may panalo naman kami.  Siguro, iba na labanan ngayon dahil may import, hindi tulad ngayon, tig-dalawang imports, pero tulad nga ng ginagawa namin, bawat isa dapat mag-usap, mag-practice sila gaya ng ginagawa ko nga dati.” – Richard Dy and Jason Mercene

Follow these writers at Twitter: @richava and @JasonMercenePH