Gilas players, both men and women, celebrate with Sen. Bong Go and top sports officials after their SEA Games romp.
The STAR Sports Staff (Agence France-Presse) - December 26, 2019 - 12:00am

(Second of two parts)

MANILA, Philippines — There were those that delivered the news and provided the highs and lows for Philippine sports in the year that’s about to pass.

The heart-breaking stint of Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA World Cup will be remembered until the next one comes along, with hopes of a better finish as the country co-hosts the 2023 edition with Japan and Indonesia.

Also making news was powerhouse San Miguel Beer, which won the first two titles in the PBA season only to be denied a grand slam. It was a bid that came to a screeching halt, with punches being thrown during team practice, but left its head coach counting their blessings.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles came along to complete a perfect season and nail their third consecutive championship in the UAAP. The Letran Knights were not too far behind, making the headlines with their stunning season and a first NCAA crown since 2015.

The Philippine Olympic Committee underwent a leadership change after boxing chief Ricky Vargas stepped down with his head held high. And, last but not the least, the Philippine men’s volleyball team, which kept the fans screaming during the 30th SEA Games.

These are just some of the stories that made the sports page worth looking at in 2019.

05 Roller-coaster ride for Gilas

What started on the wrong foot ended in the glitter of gold for Gilas Pilipinas.

From the hardcourts of faraway Doha, Astana, and the Chinese cities of Foshan and Beijing to the homey arena in Pasay, Gilas Pilipinas had a merry mix of swishes and airballs in its 2019 international sorties.

At the start of the year, the Philippine cagers climbed out of a tight fix in the  Asian Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup by scoring huge victories on the road in the sixth and final window of the Continental preliminaries.

For the country’s second stint in the WC in China last August, Gilas coach Yeng Guiao called on the core of the crew that earned qualification, led by naturalized player Andray Blatche and June Mar Fajardo.

They played four matches in a training camp and mini-tournament against African teams in Spain for 10 days and declared readiness to face the world.

But unlike the 2014 edition when they shocked the global scene, the Gilas cagers received sound beating from all five opponents. 

Gilas finished dead last.

Guiao apologized for the team’s dismal showing and resigned to give the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas a free hand in charting the course for the Gilas program leading to the next World Cup the Philippines is co-hosting in 2023.

There’s the fast-approaching Southeast Asian Games to attend to, though. And the SBP called on grand slam champion coach Tim Cone to take the reins.

Cone assembled an all-pro team to showcase the Philippines’ might in the aftermath of the World Cup bust and give Philippine basketball a brighter year-end triumph at home.

Living up to expectations, Cone and company delivered the gold medal closest to the heart of Filipinos at a packed MOA Arena, sealing a runaway triumph against vastly-improved foes led by runner-up Thailand and third-placer Vietnam.

It was the icing on the cake on a stellar four-gold sweep by the Gilas program in the SEAG. Before  the PBA squad copped the country’s 13th straight crown, the Gilas women broke through with its historic SEAG mint. And the week before, Gilas men’s 3x3 composed of Mo Tautuaa,  Jason Perkins, Chris Newsome and CJ Perez dominated the inaugural three-a-side event, a feat duplicated by their female counterparts.

The gold in the men’s side came as expected. It was the victory in the women’s side that provided the greatest thrill.

06 Bambol becomes POC President

The Philippine Olympic Committee elected cycling chief and Tagaytay Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino to the presidency last July 28.

Tolentino became the third POC president in three years, coming after boxing’s Victorico “Ricky” Vargas, and long-time chief executive Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr.

Tolentino’s election made it three elected presidents for the POC in one Olympic cycle – actually a rare thing even for an organization where leadership disputes and political maneuverings are a staple.

It’s been only 16 months since the Olympic body installed Vargas in place of the long-serving Cojuangco in a court-ordered special polls in February 2018 when politics took over.

In June, Vargas made an unexpected move during a board meeting. He filed his irrevocable resignation, citing “corporate responsibilities” and “family sentiments” as the factors.

Initially, there was a heated debate as to whether the position of president was vacant or the next-in-line, first vice president Joey Romasanta, should take over. 

But the International Olympic Committee and Olympic Council of Asia stepped in and paved the way for another election last July 28 where Tolentino defeated athletics’ Philip Ella Juico for the presidency via a 24-20 count.

Juico’s runningmate, 74-year-old Steve Hontiveros of handball, won the chairmanship after getting 26 votes against Tolentino’s bet, Robert Aventajado of taekwondo, who got 18.  

“Hopefully this election puts an end to the POC squabble,” said the 55-year-old Tolentino, who will serve out the remainder of Vargas’ term until November 2020. 

“And as the saying goes, let’s set aside differences and move forward, Let us be united and focus on the SEA Games as well as Para Games and Olympics next year,” he said upon his election.

07 SMB counts its blessings

San Miguel Beer brewed a grand plan in the PBA’s 44th season – win the grand slam.

Bannered by five-time MVP June Mar Fajardo, the Beermen touched things off with a fifth consecutive Philippine Cup title.

Then coach Leo Austria and his rampaging charges led by former NBA player Chris McCullough annexed the Commissioner’s Cup at the expense of Talk N Text, and moved one crown away from the franchise’s second grand slam.

But happy hour didn’t last.

As they hunted for final piece in the Governors’ Cup, things turned sour for the SMB squad.

Dez Wells, the explosive import, suffered an ankle injury in their eighth game of the elims, and SMB was forced to fly in former NBA player John Holland.

Wells was placed on the injury list, and was getting set to rejoin the team when a simmering rift with SMB locals exploded into a scuffle during one practice.

Management let go of Wells and suspended the locals in the fight, Arwind Santos, Ronald Tubid and Kelly Nabong indefinitely.

It was an adversity that Austria and his charges failed to eventually overcome. The Beermen kissed their hat-trick bid goodbye when they bowed to twice-to-beat No. 4 Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals. It was 2017 all over again as the Gin Kings thwarted their treble plans.

“But I’m happy with what we achieved – two championships this season and eight championships the last five years. So we have to count our blessings,” said Austria.

08 Blue Eagles’perfect season

The opposition was swept away.

Ateneo did just that in the 82nd UAAP season, carving out the league’s first 16-game sweep on its way to a third straight title.

The Eagles insisted it wasn’t easy and that the mission wasn’t accomplished overnight.

Led by the master tactician Tab Baldwin,  the “16 Eagles” are Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Angelo Kouame, Matt Nieto, Mike Nieto, Adrian Wong, SJ Belangel, Will Navarro, Gian Mamuyac, BJ Andrade, Tyler Tio, Paat Maagdenberg, Jason Credo, Geo Chiu, Troy Mallilin and Matthew Daves.

They flew high all season long and authored a sweep the league has never seen since the great UST team of Aric del Rosario in 1993 completed a 14-0 season sweep.

Ateneo went as far as Singapore, Greece and Australia to gear up for the perfect season.

By completing a 14-0 sweep in the elims, they gained an automatic ticket to the finals where they also scored a 2-0 romp of the Tigers.

“The 16-0 season is really something that we dreamed about. We didn’t talk a lot about it because we never wanted to set that as a goal. But I know that the players particularly dream about it and it is a dream season to go through unblemished,” said Baldwin.

He said it was a humbling experience.

“They’re (Eagles) so much more than basketball players. But for me, it made me a better person. It humbles me. It’s very humbling when these men sacrifice their ego. They sacrifice their,” said Baldwin.

Yes, it was no easy feat.

09 In Shining Armor, Knights prevail

The Letran Knights stole the spotlight by coming out of nowhere to rule the 95th NCAA basketball tournament.

The Muralla-based dribblers beat the favored San Beda Red Lions in three epic games to nail its 18th championship and deny the latter a 23rd crown.

And Letran did it with an all-Filipino roster headed by the valiant Jerrick Balanza, who dished out a performance to remember.

It was a fitting climax for the Knights, who spoiled the Lions’ undefeated run of 18 games in the elimination round.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Lions, who seemed unbeatable until they were pitted against a team so hungry for a title.

For coach Bonnie Tan, it was his first NCAA title. It shouldn’t be his last.

10 Pinoy Spikers end drought

While women’s volleyball will continue to enjoy corporate support, mileage and the likes despite its failed bid to medal in the SEA Games, men’s volley will finally get the acceptance and treatment it deserves – from now on.

Kept out of the spotlight in the local volley landscape for years, the national men’s spikers did the unthinkable by dethroning powerhouse and many-time champion Thailand in the semifinals, guaranteeing the country’s first silver medal in the SEA Games in 42 years.

Though they fell short of the gold, bowing to the taller, more experienced Indonesian side, the Pinoy spikers proved that given the right program, including training and exposure, no volley mission is impossible this side of the world.

“We’re really hoping our training would continue. It’s important for us because we just started the program,” said national coach Dante Alinsunurin.

It was the first silver medal for the country since the 1977 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

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