MANILA — The University of Santo Tomas (UST) Tiger Cubs have been proving to be unsinkable in do-or-die matches at the tail-end of the UAAP juniors basketball tournament.
They’ve eliminated Adamson University and defending champions Far Eastern University (FEU) by the skin of their teeth, 73-72 and 81-80, respectively.
In the midst of the Tiger Cubs’ Cinderella run is the one man in the middle – John Bismarck Lina, who is in his freshman year with the team after transferring from Chiang Kai Shek College.
The Tiger Cubs were seeded to fight for a Final 4 slot but when news broke out about an impending coaching change in the middle of the season, the unwanted distraction saw UST fall apart in the second round. They arrested their skid with some late season heroics and now they have placed themselves in a position to book that second finals slot.
What is amazing in the midst of all this is how this 6-foot-4 forward-center has been lost in the shuffle. And why not when the uncrowned league Most Valuable Player CJ Cansino is in uniform with their plethora of outside snipers with Kobe Palencia, Rayjhun Baquial, Liam Manabat, and Vince Dolendo.
Yet with the game on the line, Bismarck has been the last line of defense. During their final match against FEU in the elimination round, Baby Tamaraws center Daniel Celzo found himself isolated against Lina yet missed a last second shot. Then in the step-ladder no-tomorrow match against FEU, it was Lina who defended that last gasp three-point attempt by Royce Alforque that missed badly.
“Hindi siya ‘yung lead scorer ng team pero marami siyang ginagawa para sa team,” noted the lad’s uncle, Jong Ticsay. “Yung mga tinatawag na hustle stats na hindi lumalabas sa final stat sheet.”
Lina, the first cousin of former UST King Tiger and current Barangay Ginebra player Kevin Ferrer, actually somewhat prefers it to play a low-key role and to simply let his game do the talking. He was on Chiang Kai Shek College’s Team B and in the process of transferring to UST when he came out of nowhere to bag a slot on the Batang Gilas team that played in last year’s SEABA tournament where he was a part of the gold medal winning Under-16 team.
On a talent-laden all-star crew, Lina posted averages of 8.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.5 assists.
“Thankful kami kasama si Bismarck sa Batang Gilas,” offered his mother, Tina, who is always present at her youngest child’s matches. “Para sa aming pamilya, happy kami. Kasi meron siya edukasyon tapos may chance sa career sa basketball.”
The mother has a story to tell about her only boy’s unusual name. I asked because the “Bismarck” I know from my world history is Otto van Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany during its empire who had a battleship named for him during World War II.
“Nanonoood ako ng National Geographic channel tapos meron ako nakitang feature about this big ship ng Germany na ang pangalan ay Bismarck,” related the mother. “Matibay ‘yung Bismarck at medyo pinagtulungan para ma-sink nila. Nag-pray lang din ako na yung anak ko ay maging malakas at siyempre mabuting tao.”
The 16-year old Bismarck Lina has been a rock in the middle for Chris Cantonjos’ Tiger Cubs where he is averaging 8.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists. Furthermore, he is hitting 49% of his field goals, the highest among those in the regular rotation. And last but not the least, he is the league’s top offensive rebounder.
While he could average more, Lina willingly submits to the other talents around him to ensure UST’s success. “Ang tinuturo at lagi namin pinapaalala ay maging humble,” says his father Norberto.
Lina’s mother also expressed her happiness that opposed to sleeping in the UST dorm, Lina prefers to go to the family homestead in Makati. “There nababantayan ko rin ‘yung pag-inom niya ng gatas,” shared his father. “You only want what is best for your children.”
Said his older cousin Vince Ferrer, who is now with FEU: “We constantly remind Bismarck that basketball isn’t only about skills but also having a good attitude. Kaya yun, natutuwa rin kami kasi humble lang siya at tahimik.”
Now facing their third elimination game in a week’s time, this time against the dangerous National University Bullpups, Lina will need to play big if they want to extend their season by at least more day.
“Dadaan talaga sila sa butas ng karayom,” noted his father. “Pero mas masarap ‘yung ganyan. At dito pa lang sa pinakita nila, para na silang winners. Pero kung meron pa sila maipuwesto na mas mataas, bakit hindi?”
The UST Tiger Cubs battle the NU Bullpups Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the Filoil Flying V Centre in San Juan.
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