Best of the Decade: Patrick Aquino helped lift women's basketball to new heights

Gilas Pilipinas Women interview (7:50)

Gilas Pilipinas Women interview (7:50)

As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.

We honor the coaches who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. Of all the coaches we recognized, no one had a winning streak like Patrick Aquino had with his NU Lady Bulldogs. Already in the record books for his six straight UAAP titles during which his team went undefeated over 96 games, Aquino ended the decade by giving the Philippines its first-ever Southeast Asian Games gold medal in women's basketball.

Patrick Aquino took women's basketball to unprecedented heights in the latter part of the decade as the head coach of both Gilas Pilipinas Women and the National University Lady Bulldogs.

Since 2014, Aquino has been reshaping women's hoops through the best way possible: winning.

The Lady Bulldogs hold the longest winning streak in all of collegiate sports -- a record 96 straight victories and counting. That stretch of dominance includes six consecutive UAAP titles, cementing the NU women's basketball team as of one of the best programs in all of Philippine sports.

To own a winning streak for any extended period is astonishing on its own because it represents the result of hard work and an unwavering will to compete every single game. At the same time, however, racking up victories left and right can be fragile. You almost have to be perfect every time you step on the playing field. And on some days, you have to rely on luck to carry you through a win. The toll of protecting a winning streak can weigh on any great team on any given night.

"When you have a strong leader, you have great followers. So from the top of the food chain, everyone follows what coach Pat says and does." Kelli Hayes

For the Lady Bulldogs, the secret to their unrivaled success comes from the culture that Aquino has built.

"We were all recruited, some from Palarong Pambansa, there are MVPs, but coach Pat said when you're in NU, forget about all that," said graduating player Monique del Carmen after NU won the Season 82 title. "Whatever role given to you, you should accept it no matter what happens."

Kelli Hayes, who was recruited the past year from UCLA, credited NU's success to its strong foundation in Aquino.

"When you have a strong leader, you have great followers. So from the top of the food chain, everyone follows what coach Pat says and does," said Hayes. "There is a level of respect that us as players have for him on the court, sometimes we disagree with him and some of his decisions, but we have to do it because we're on the team and it's a team sport. And that's how we win, because we're on the same page.

"Everyone puts one another first. Someone may play five minutes, 10 minutes, or no minutes, it's for the team. That's why NU basketball is so successful, we do everything for the team. Everything is bigger than ourselves."

Gilas Pilipinas Women also exemplified excellence after capturing the elusive gold in the recently concluded 2019 Southeast Asian Games 5-on-5 basketball tournament in addition to their inaugural 3x3 gold. It was a historic feat for the Philippines after failing to win in the biennial meet's women's basketball event since joining in 1981. This achievement capped off Gilas Women's stellar run in international competitions that included a Level 1 promotion in FIBA Asia back in 2017.

Through all his accomplishments, Aquino has been a staunch advocate of women's basketball. As much as there were battles on the court, there was a bigger cause at stake in trying to give attention to the women's side of the sport that has been under the shadow of the men's division.

And the best promotion of women's basketball comes through victory. It's no coincidence that one of the first things that Aquino said after getting the SEA Games gold was "now, we hope you notice us."

Gilas mainstay Afril Bernardino shares the same sentiments of her longtime mentor.

"We were telling ourselves that we probably haven't proven anything yet that's why we couldn't get support," Bernardino said. "But now, we really grabbed this opportunity to give women's basketball a chance. We're really proud to represent women's basketball. And maybe this is the start for all the girls who really want to get into the sport and to get women's basketball noticed."

If the Lady Bulldogs did not build their unprecedented winning streak or if Gilas Pilipinas Women fell short once again at the SEA Games, everything that Aquino has stood for in the last six years might have been for naught. That's why all his teams have an edge on them. They have a chip on their shoulder because they are vying for national attention and spotlight. Winning isn't everything, but if you're talking about women's basketball, victory may be the only guaranteed path to relevance. And the NU Lady Bulldogs and Gilas Pilipinas Women are lucky to have the perfect ambassador for the sport.

Pat Aquino is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the country - and certainly one of the best in the 2010s - because he is a trailblazer and a history-maker for Philippine women's basketball.