Afril Bernardino: Face of Philippine women’s basketball

Afril Bernardino is already considered one of the best female basketball players in the Philippines today. 

But like most athletes, she didn’t immediately find success.

When Bernardino was growing up, she was always fascinated by the sport of basketball but never really got into it full-on. She spent time watching her family and neighbors play at a makeshift court near her home. Sometimes she would play with all the other men but never really took anything too seriously. She was too preoccupied with her actual sport at the time, which was track and field.

She had no plans of switching sports. Her introduction to formal basketball happened only when she was recruited by chance.

One day while she was passing by the court with her track and field teammates, she saw the women’s basketball team and asked if she could shoot a few baskets. The coach was surprised to see how naturally talented Bernardino was and invited her to substitute one of their players who was sick.

One moment led to another and Bernardino found herself participating in two events—basketball and track and field—during one edition of the Palarong Pambansa. Not too long after, she was encouraged to try out for the NU Lady Bulldogs where she got accepted.

“Siguro naenjoy ko [ang basketball] kasi babae kami tapos nasa isip namin na hindi lang para sa lalaki ‘to,“ Bernardino mentioned.

It was with the Lady Bulldogs, which is coached by Gilas Women coach Patrick Aquino, where Bernardino honed her skills and talent as a basketball player.

At only 5’8, Bernardino found success using her speed and athleticism during the matches. Only a few years into playing organized basketball, Bernardino was quickly becoming the leader of a dynasty that would dominate for years.

In 2014, Bernardino led the Lady Bulldogs to a championship in the UAAP and was hailed as the league’s MVP. NU kept winning titles until Bernardino played her final year in 2016. In Season 79, Bernardino averaged 18.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 4.4 steals, and 1.8 blocks.

By the end of her UAAP career, Bernardino had won three championships and three MVP trophies. She also received an Award of Excellence, becoming the UAAP-NCAA Press Corps’ first female basketball player to receive the recognition.

“Meron ring kababaihan na gustong ipakita ‘yung talent nila sa basketbol, kahit alam nila na ‘panlalaki’ ito. Ito yung gusto namin ipakita yung talent namin, yung abilidad na meron kami and gusto namin ma-share yun sa lahat pa ng kababaihan na gusto talaga maglaro ng basketbol,” she said.

Bernardino joined the Gilas program in 2015. Through the years, Bernardino has developed into the team’s primary scorer and playmaker.

In the recently concluded FIBA Asia Cup, Bernardino averaged 14.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. But it was her last two games that really got everyone’s attention. Bernardino was the heart and soul of the team’s offense, making her presence felt on every end of the floor.

Even with the obvious height difference against the other competitors in the Asia Cup, Bernardino powered through it all, earning much respect from the FIBA community. She finished strong with huge double-doubles—33 points and 14 rebounds against Chinese Taipei and 25 points and 11 rebounds against India. 

“Gusto talaga namin ipanalo every single game para maipakita din sa kanila na kaya lumaban ng women’s basketball dito sa Pilipinas. Kaya namin makipag-compete internationally,” Bernardino shared.

Bernardino’s impact and contribution to the Philippine women’s team are recognized not just by Filipino fans but the entire global basketball community. She is a tough and competitive player who makes no excuses and gives her A-game every single time. She is a pillar in the local women’s basketball scene and an advocate for all Filipina players.

“Gusto ko gayahin ng mga batang kababaihan ‘yung katulad ng ginawa namin na nangarap lang rin kami na magkaroon ng women’s basketball dito sa Pilipinas.”