JUNERIC Baloria has certainly impressed a lot of people with his scoring and audacity, both rare for a rookie, in his debut season with University of Perpetual Help in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Count former Perpetual star Bong Hawkins among them.
Hawkins was in attendance at The Arena in San Juan on Thursday when the Altas dealt Letran its first loss, 80-66 and the PBA great witnessed the prowess of the 23-year-old shooting guard, the league’s leading scorer who has turned the Altas into title contenders this season.
“Parang hindi rookie,” Hawkins told Spin.ph in a short chat after he visited the Altas’ dugout for a quick pep talk following the victory.
Baloria, the pride of Lanao del Norte, further underscored his status as the Altas' new gunner as he fired 28 points, including three triples, on top of three boards, two assists, one steal, and one block with just three minutes of rest against the erstwhile unbeaten Knights.
“Pero lahat naman okay,” Hawkins, who remains the finest product to come out of the Perpetual Help basketball program, was quick to add. “Yung si Omorogbe, yun ang isang key player nila sa tingin ko.”
Hawkins was referring to Nigerian forward Nicholas Omorogbe, who ably provided support for Baloria by flirting with triple-double numbers of 25 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists.
Hawkins was full of praise for the Altas, a perennial cellar-dweller in the last few years which has turned into a major force under multi-titled mentor Aric del Rosario, incidentally one of Hawkins' former coaches at Alaska.
“Gumaganda yung laro nila ngayon, lalong nagiging solid, lalo na sa sa depensa,” Hawkins said. “Ipagpatuloy lang nila kasi mahaba pa yang liga.”
In the late 1980s, Hawkins spearheaded the Altas to one of their most successful finishes in the country’s oldest collegiate when they ended up second behind a powerhouse San Sebastian side that had Bong Alvarez, Eugene Quilban, and Allan Garrido.
Hawkins, who would later on establish a successful 15-year PBA career embellished with a grand slam for Alaska, believes the Altas not only can replicate their feat in the past, but ultimately capture their first-ever NCAA title this season.
“Kaya (mag-champion). Sa tingin ko, as of now, kaya nila Letran at kaya rin nila San Beda. Wag lang mawawala yung focus nila."
Perpetual Help is the remaining NCAA school without a championship in its existence both in the seniors and juniors divisions.