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A former King Tiger's last hurrah

MANILA, Philippines – Chris Cantonjos threw up his arms in that strong man pose. His UST Tiger Cubs just vanquished, escaped even, with a 73-72 overtime win over a hard-luck Adamson Baby Falcons squad in the playoffs of the UAAP juniors basketball tournament.

Cantonjos can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting to shake the hand of his Adamson counterpart Mike Fermin. Emotion, unbridled and unadulterated emotion can do that to a man. But he did greet Fermin after eventually composing himself.

You can say Cantonjos is living on borrowed time. Wherever the Tiger Cubs end this season, it is his last.

“Nagpaalam na nga rin ako,” he said with a clearly conflicted voice. After all his team just won. However, one loss, and just like that, perhaps, it is all over.

When news broke out that new management and a new basketball operations boss was in place, it was postulated that he would be out as head coach. Cantonjos, who led UST to several seniors championships in the UAAP in the 1990s and also played in the PBA, was befuddled.

“Why in the middle of the season is there news like that,” he wondered. “Hindi ba on course kami para sa goal ng Final Four?”

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When his alma mater was floundering in basketball, he answered the call to arms. And now….

Yet when the news broke out, the Tiger Cubs went on a tailspin. But the proud man that he is, Cantonjos asked his team to recall its old form; one flashed during the summer and the first round when they were clearly a force to reckon with.

Moments before the playoff with Adamson to determine the right to move on the stepladder format of the tournament, Cantonjos sat by his lonesome from across the bench as his players warmed up on the Blue Eagle Gym court.

A moment of reflection? He simply nodded and smiled. His time may be done… at least for now. But he refused to think of himself or even what he cannot control.

“May oras para diyan,” he promised. “Pero ngayon, para sa mga bata ito. Sa mga problema namin (losing Inand Fornilos to La Salle Greenhills in the summer), sa pinaghirapan namin (the late season struggles), kailangan mapakita namin ang puso ng Tomasino,” he said with a conviction he showed during his playing days when he battled the likes of NU’s Danny Ildefonso, FEU’s Ronald Magtulis and La Salle’s Mark Telan inside the paint.

Casting a look at his players, his eyes settled on his center Bismarck Lina. The Batang Gilas player is a team player. Unselfish, willing to do the dirty work, and the unofficial leader of the team (look at how he greets his teammates coming out of the game offering encouragement, handing them water, and patting them on the back after they get chewed out by the coaching staff), Lina in Cantonjos’ mind, is a raw but talented kid.

“Hindi mareklamo yung bata,” said Cantonjos. “Very coachable. Talented din. Kaya nasa national team yan.”

He called Lina aside and reiterated that for UST to advance, he needed not only for Cansino to score, his other teammates to do their part, but he needed Lina to be strong inside.

By first quarter’s end, Lina led the team in scoring with five points as Cansino struggled with the double teams thrown at him. Lina ended up with a double double of 12 points and 12 rebounds. Of the six attempts over him, only one found the bottom of the net.

Lina was bullish inside and when he fouled out late in overtime (despite what Cantonjos feels was a phantom foul called on his center), the coaches patted him on the back. “Laban lang,” he said.

When Cantonjos recruited Kobe Palencia during the Palarong Pambansa, he promised the kid’s parents that he’d care for him and help him develop his career. And Palencia, helped tow UST to the next round. And lying in wait are old foes, FEU.

As Cantonjos made his way to the locker room deep in the bowels of the cavernous Blue Eagle Gym, he went up the stands to shake some hands of some supporters who braved the Wednesday, Valentine’s Day traffic all the way to Loyola Heights.

He grinned but it was obviously he was bottling up all these emotions. He then waved and disappeared inside the tunnel leading to the dugout. 

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