There seems to be no end in sight for National University's dominance in UAAP women's basketball. After earning an unprecedented sixth straight championship on Saturday at the conclusion of Season 82, the National University Lady Bulldogs extended their streak to a record 96 games to remain the winningest team in all of Philippine collegiate sports.
Though seasons change and personnel vary, NU's goal stays the same: win the trophy at the end of each year. And come Season 83, the Lady Bulldogs will remain true to their mission as they aim for title number seven.
"Next year, I expect all my players will be stepping up," said coach Pat Aquino. "Come to think of it, I have a lot more rookies coming in. I'm just excited to have them coming in. As they say, this is not just them, it's the program, the community, the supporters, the management, everybody."
One of the Lady Bulldogs' ingredients for success is their ability to rely on each other in the face of adversity. Trusting one another and stepping up are not mere cliches for this championship team.
In the recently concluded finals against the UST Golden Tigresses, the Lady Bulldogs had to overcome the loss of star Jack Animam. The versatile forward and the team's vocal leader was left in New Zealand to nurse an eye injury she suffered during the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament last week. Animam's innate skills were sorely missed on the basketball court, but the lack of her guiding presence also posed a challenge for NU. But Animam, being the leader that she is, found a way to reach out to his teammates in other ways.
Rhena Itesi, Animam's frontcourt partner, received words of encouragement before facing UST.
"She messaged me a day before the first game. She said, 'I know that you always got my back but you can do it without me.' I was crying. I was really crying," recalled Itesi. "We did a video call, I couldn't even look at her because this is my first championship to play without Jack because every time I played the championship it's always like when I'm scoring she shouts at my back like 'Rhena, you score, I got the rebound.' And when she was scoring I'm getting the rebound. It was always like that."
As a determined unit with a common goal, the Lady Bulldogs found a way to deliver despite Animam's absence.
"Jack is the most vocal compared to all of us," Finals MVP Monique del Carmen said in Filipino. "When she was out, all of us became more vocal. That was a good thing. It was like we looked at the positive side. All of us were given a chance to step up, be vocal, in and out of the court."
The Lady Bulldogs' greatest strength is not defined by their multi-titled coach, their stars, nor a specific group of players. Their unblemished record through six years is a testament to the team culture that they have built. Every season, Aquino implores his graduating players to set an example to the younger players, passing on the values of trust and selflessness.
"Instead of being just a senior, they need to give something else as well. They need to pass the torch," Aquino said as NU's next batch of players will have to fill the void that will be left by the graduating core of Del Carmen, Itesi, Animam, Kaye Pingol, Kelli Hayes, and Sam Harada.
If the Lady Bulldogs complete another 16-0 sweep next season, they will break the world record for the most number of consecutive victories, surpassing the 111-win milestone set by the Uconn Huskies women's basketball team. Amidst the rising pressure to keep the winning streak alive, expect the six-time defending UAAP champions to share the burden as much as they share the success.
"Every year, there are people who doubt us, saying that it's over because some players are already gone, but it becomes our motivation every year," Del Carmen said. "NU is NU. NU is not Jack. NU is not Kelli. NU is not Rhena. NU is [the] Lady Bulldogs. Next year, I have no doubt that they will remain undefeated because that's what we felt when the other key players left. We were able to do it so I know they'll be able to do it too."