Now it can be told.
Nazareth School of National U skipper Justine Baltazar played through pain majority of the UAAP Season 78 juniors basketball tournament but the towering center still stood tallest—literally and figuratively—above everyone else.
Proving that height is indeed might, the 6-foot-7 Baltazar, 19, dominated inside the paint anew as NU turned back De La Salle-Zobel 96-75 and reclaim the juniors cage throne before an appreciative Friday crowd at the Filoil-Flying V Center in San Juan.
Baltazar banged his third straight double-double in the finals series behind a 18-point, 14-rebound performance on his way to copping the Finals MVP following the Bullpups’ third title in the last four years—all under the tutelage of coach Jeff Napa.
“Ginawa ko lang ang pinapagawa ni coach,” said the graduating Baltazar, one of the most-sought high school talents in the country today. “Kasi last year ko na. Ginampanan ko lang pagiging captain ball ko at inalalayan ko rin mga teammates ko.”
While he sounded proud of what Baltazar has accomplished in his final tour of duty with the Bulldogs, Napa, 35, disclosed the Mabalacat, Pampanga native suffered a broken left foot before the start of the season but still gave his all to power the Bullpups back to the top.
“Although walang nakakaalam sa inyo na may injury ‘yan, ipinakita niya ‘yung heart niya at binigay niya lahat kaya proud ako sa batang ito,” said Napa while sitting beside Baltazar during the post-match interview.
“Warrior ‘yung bata. Despite may injury siya, nilalaro niya. Makulit rin kasi,” added Napa. “Inalalayan lang namin siya at happy ako kasi kahit may injury siya, nag-deliver siya all throughout.”
Napa added they really tried to keep Baltazar’s foot condition a closely-guarded secret, knowing their rivals could pounce on it to gain an advantage.
“Nilihim muna talaga namin para walang maka-recognize kung ano ang nagyayari sa team,” he said.
“Tinakpan muna namin kung ano man ang injury niya at pinunan muna ng mga kasama niya. Mayroon pa kaming 15 players na kayang punan kung sakaling mawawala ni Justine. Nu’ng naka-recover siya, naging maganda ang takbo ng team.”
Aside from his superior skills, Baltazar claimed his pair of Under Armour shoes personally signed by reigning NBA league MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors also brought him some luck.
“Palagi ko po itong ginagamit. Nu’ng Game 2, hindi ko po ginamit,” said Baltazar, referring coincidentally to their 60-71 loss last week that snapped their 15-game winning streak dating back to the eliminations.
“First time ko mabigyan ng ganito nu’ng pumunta si Steph (last September).” – By Jerome Lagunzad
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