Editor's note: This is the first of four UAAP editions of the "Toughest Matchup" series that will feature former collegiate stars from the teams that made the Final Four of the UAAP Season 81 Men's Basketball tournament. First up is Wesley Gonzales, a former player of the defending champions and top-seeded Ateneo Blue Eagles.
A proud product of Ateneo since high school, Wesley Gonzales had a stellar career in college as he was part of the crew that ended a long championship drought in 2002. He was also named the co-MVP of that finals series against La Salle alongside Larry Fonacier.
Gonzales was selected ninth overall in the 2004 PBA Draft. He had stints with FedEx, Magnolia, Coca-Cola, Burger King, Air21, San Mig Coffee, and Barako Bull before retiring in 2014. He remains relevant in the basketball scene, working as a commentator for PBA Radio, PBA D-League, and UCBL.
ESPN5 sat down with Gonzales to find out who were his toughest matchups during his collegiate years.
Wesley Gonzales on Defense
Gonzales was a tough defender because of his length and his competitive nature. He was quick on his feet and had active hands. However, even with his solid defensive skills, there was one particular La Salle Green Archer that Gonzales had a tough time with.
"Renren Ritualo is by far the most talented player I ever defended in the UAAP," said Gonzales. "He was so difficult to guard because their offense was guard-oriented and centered on him. To guard him, you'll have to go through a lot of screens."
Ritualo was a four-time champion in the UAAP.
"Renren can shoot from anywhere, so cardio was so important because that would be your investment against him. He covers a lot of ground because he moves well without the ball," he recalled.
However, aside from all the running, Ritualo's teammates also made it more difficult for Gonzales. With their offense focused on finding openings for the sweet-shooting guard, La Salle's big men would do everything to give him room.
"The tougher part of defending him was ramming into so many screens," Gonzales admitted. "As a guard, that really took a toll on me because you have big bodies out there whose role is to free up Renren by any means necessary. When you're going up against Renren, you can't take a break because the ball will always go to him."
"His release is fast and he's an accurate shooter. If he sees just a fraction of the rim, he'll take the shot because he has the green light to shoot," he continued. "So for me, the best way to defend him is full denial. Don't allow him to touch the ball anymore, which is, of course, easier said than done."
Gonzales on Offense
Offensively, Gonzales was a versatile weapon so defending him was also a challenge. Sharing the floor with LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Rich Alvarez and Enrico Villanueva made it easy to sometimes forget about Gonzales. Those who did usually paid a hefty price.
"There were a lot of players whose role was to rough you up," Gonzales said. "Guys like JR Estrada of UE, Jojo Hate of Adamson, Iago Raterta of UST, that's really their role. But in terms of one-on-one defense, the best for me was Rhagnee Sinco of FEU. His only job was to defend. He was not as good as other FEU players in terms of talent on offense but he really worked hard on defense and his conditioning was really good."
FEU was a powerhouse team back then as they swept Ateneo in the UAAP Season 66 finals. The Tamaraws featured a lineup of Arwind Santos, Denok Miranda, Jeff Chan, and Mark Isip, so Sinco did not have to do a lot of scoring.
"We're both lanky players but he's more used to physicality. He also studied the tendencies of the players he was guarding. He anticipated very well," he stated. "It doesn't matter what move I did, he'd still be in front of me. He would not give you breathing room to operate, that's why I had a tough time against him."
Sinco was selected 24th overall in the 2004 PBA Draft by the Coca-Cola Tigers. That draft class was headlined by Rich Alvarez, James Yap, Marc Pingris, Ranidel De Ocampo, and Sonny Thoss.
Being one of the best players to come out of the Ateneo program, it was only fitting that his toughest matchup throughout his collegiate career comes from the "green side."
"Mac Cardona was my toughest matchup and also my favorite. I loved going up against him," Gonzales said. "He's one of the most intense players I've ever played against. He really plays with emotion and so do I so I liked that matchup."
For Gonzales, what set Cardona apart was that he was a great player and a great talker as well. Knowing he can back his trash talk with his talent, Cardona made it a point to get in the ears of his opponents.
"He's a master of the mental aspect of the game because he'd get in your head," Gonzales said. "Even before the buzzer sounds, he'd be in my ear. Every time they score, even if it was not against me, he'd still scream at me, that's why matching up with Macmac is the most memorable for me."
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Back in the day, this guy was one of my fiercest competitors. Proud to see him back on his feet, standing tall again on the hard court. Much respect. #Repost @markcardona38 (@get_repost) ・・・ This is how we used to play basketball in 2002 kids 🤣 #bastosan #tirahan #banatan #gagohan #murahan #sikohan #sapakan #duroan #delasalle #ateneo
What made the rivalry with Cardona extra special for Gonzales was because not only was it Ateneo-La Salle but it also happened in the UAAP finals.
"At that time, when we were playing in the finals, it was the first time in a long while that Ateneo got there," the former Blue Eagle went on. "It couldn't get more intense because it was a rivalry match and for the trophy as well."
Gonzales spent a lot of time defending Cardona and he admits that famous hook shot of Cardona's was difficult to stop it even if he knew it was going to happen.
"It was so difficult to defend his hook shot because you couldn't time it. He could hit it from anywhere so it's not like he was trying to get into a spot. He goes up quick with it. You'd really have to study his moves and his tendencies to have a chance to defend it," he said.
On defense, Cardona was also a pesky defender, which perfectly fit into what coach Franz Pumaren wanted from his squad back then.
"He had very active hands on defense. With La Salle's defense being heavy on pressure, they really liked forcing turnovers so Mac would always gamble. When he thinks he could get a hand on the ball, he'd really go for it," Gonzales said.
"We also had some matchups in the PBA but I don't think it got as heated as what we had in college."