My Toughest Matchup, as told by Jett Manuel

Editor's note: This is the third 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. This time we interviewed former UP Fighting Maroon Jett Manuel.

Jett Manuel took a unique path to the PBA because he didn't have the usual impressive collegiate career that could have boosted his stock in the PBA Rookie Draft. Manuel's UP Fighting Maroons were always near the bottom on the standings throughout his UAAP stint. Still, he had great battles against some of the league's best teams and these victories always stole headlines since many loved their underdog story.

ESPN5 caught up with the Barangay Ginebra rookie, who could not be prouder that UP ended their 21-year absence from the Final Four, to talk about his best matchups during his collegiate years.

Manuel on Defense

"There were a lot of players who were tough to defend back then. Kiefer Ravena was smart, Jeron Teng was physically imposing but, for me, the toughest to guard is Terrence Romeo hands down," Manuel said.

"His best asset is that he could do whatever he wanted with the ball. He can go wherever he wants to go. His handles, paired with his shot-making ability made it very hard to defend him."

Romeo was a deadly weapon for the FEU Tamaraws back in the day. Although their lineup was loaded with other talented guards such as RR Garcia, Romeo took control of their offense.

Manuel was a member of the UP squad during their dark years but even if his team did not get the results they wanted, his defensive pride pushed him to do his best against other UAAP stars.

"I'm okay with defending fast players or shooters who'll go through a lot of screens, but Terrence would just keep going at you, keep trying to break you down. If he does not beat you with one move, he'll just back up and do something else," Manuel recalled.

"Terrence is a killer. His mentality is that whenever he has the ball in his hands, no one could stop him. He's so dangerous because he really believes he can score on anyone. He likes the challenge. When he sees the other team's superstar on him or if they have their best stopper on him, he elevates his game even more."

The task of stopping Romeo was not entirely on Manuel as they had schemes against him. However, whenever there was a breakdown on the play, Romeo would take the ball and isolate, leaving Manuel on an island.

"He can score on me but my mentality is nothing will come easy. You can drop 30 points on me but my defensive pride just pushed me to make sure you earned all of those points," Manuel added.

Romeo was named the UAAP Rookie of the Year in 2010 and was also a Mythical Team member twice in his four-year stint. He had his best performance in his fourth year with norms of 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.6 steals per game.

Manuel's effort eventually paid off against Romeo with UP scoring a rare win against FEU.

"We were batchmates so we had so many games against each other and we beat them once," Manuel said coyly. "Of course, I'll remember that because we didn't beat a lot of teams back then."

This game happened in UAAP Season 74 when UP ended their 12-game losing skid with a 76-63 win against the favored FEU squad. Not only did Manuel play great defense against Romeo who was limited to just six points, but he also scored 12 of his 20 markers in the payoff period to ensure the victory.

Manuel on Offense

During Manuel's time, the Fighting Maroons did not have a lot of options on offense. Manuel was a focal point of their offense which means he'd be getting the opposing side's stopper most of the time.

"Back then, NU's Pao Javelona was a designated stopper. He was quick on his feet and he was so disciplined. He'll never gamble," Manuel said. "My current Ginebra teammate, Julian Sargent, was also a great defender. He was also athletic and he'll just keep challenging all your shots."

However, the best defender for Manuel was a player who only had a one-season stint in the UAAP.

"Joshua Torralba gave me the hardest time because he was physical and quick and my frame was not ready for it back then. When he was in La Salle, he'll stay up on me, pressuring me because he was quick and long. I could not get jumpers against him," Manuel shared.

Torralba played for the EAC Generals in 2011 before drawing interest from the University of Texas-Pan America, a Division 1 school in the U.S. NCAA. Things did not pan out for him there so he decided to head back to the Philippines. After doing residency for one year, Torralba played for the Green Archers in Season 78 and his claim to fame was sinking a winning three-point shot against rival Ateneo in the elimination round. He left the team to go back to the U.S. the year after.

"He was a complete defender," Manuel recalled. "He'll defend me full court if he had to. He was strong in the post and he was quick enough to chase me when I was going through screens. He was an all-around defender. A real 3-and-D guy."

Toughest Matchup

With the Fighting Maroons often finding themselves at the bottom when Manuel was still playing, they did not have a lot of big games to look forward to. But like the rest of his team, The Battle of Katipunan was always something special for Manuel as it was an opportunity to take on his biggest challenge.

"I enjoyed playing against Kiefer a lot. Whenever we play Ateneo, I tell the coaching staff that I want to be the one to defend him," he said. "We have a friendly duel against each other and even if we were not contenders, pride will just push you to go up against the best players from the best teams in the league and Kiefer is a legend in the UAAP."

Ravena was the UAAP Rookie of the Year in 2011. He was part of their champion squads in 2011 and 2012 while he was named the UAAP MVP in 2014 and 2015.

"On offense, Kiefer will not blow you away with athleticism or strength but he is smart with reads. He won't keep attacking because he'll pace himself then when he catches you off guard, he attacks," Manuel continued. "He has a lot of ways to be effective, not just his scoring. He has the ball in his hands a lot because he makes really good decisions. He makes it tough for you to help off of him and he makes it tough for you to help on him. His basketball IQ is what set him apart."

If Manuel told his coaches that he wanted to guard Ravena, the Blue Eagle took it a step further.

"He told me personally that he also made it a point to defend me. He asked their video staff to give him clips of all my tendencies and he would force me to my weaknesses, which I was not ready for back then," Manuel admitted.

"There was this one game that he still rubs in my face. When we played together in China (for Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup), he brought this up every day. He gave me a zero-point performance. During the worst game of my UAAP career, he was the one guarding me. I think he also told his teammates where they needed to be against me. He really studied me."

Even though Ravena still uses this to try and embarrass Manuel whenever they cross paths, the former Fighting Maroon knows that he had to go through that in order to be a better player and ultimately land in the PBA.

"It helped me improve. I got frustrated after that bad performance but I also used it to fuel my improvements. The next time we faced each other I made sure that the weaknesses he was able to exploit won't be there anymore."