MANILA, Philippines – Sports is beautiful, but it can also be painfully heartbreaking. The great Pat Riley once said, “There’s winning, and then there’s misery.” For die-hard fans who unconditionally support their favorite teams, there’s absolutely no in-between. It’s either you smile in the middle of the day after randomly recalling the victorious moments which made you feel alive, or you spend some nights lying wide-awake, pondering on what could have been.
All throughout Season 81, the Fighting Maroons have been a tease. They showed glimpses of undeniable greatness early in the men’s basketball tournament, but often flirted with disaster which led to a sub-par starting record. Somewhere in between, things clicked, and “16 Strong” was born. UP played as a team, played into the boisterous support of their community, and went on a history-making run that led them to the legendary Smart Araneta Coliseum on Wednesday, November 28, when destiny would be written.
The scene was breathtaking. Half of the arena was painted in colors of Fighting Maroon, while the remaining space was shaded by Adamson blue. The energy was electric. Minutes before tip-off, a UP alumnus in his latter years did the sign of the cross with his fingers and then bowed his head in prayer. How many generations of suffering do you think he’d gone through before being in that very moment – the chance to ask the basketball gods to bring his beloved University of the Philippines to the UAAP finals?
This weekend, in front of thousands in attendance and millions more watching around the globe, that’s exactly where they’ll be. The underdog UP, in the finals, taking on mighty Ateneo in what’s going to play out as one of the most unforgettable duels in this country’s rich sports history. Yes, after 32 long and painful years, the UP Maroons are back in the big dance, an opportunity to take the throne not just a dream but an actual reality.
Make no mistake about it: the basketball Gods had nothing to do with this. UP beat Adamson a second straight time in the Final Four because they embodied “Atin ‘to.” Because Paul Desiderio is one of a kind. Because Bright Akhuetie deserves to be MVP. Because Juan Gomez De Liaño is sensational. Because Bo Perasol never stopped believing. Because their fans are irreplaceable.
“There was a time when we already gave up,” said Perasol, “But if I told myself that if I cannot believe for my team, who else will believe? So I just kept encouraging them, and that was what happened.”
Because University of the Philippines said no to heartbreak.
If the Soaring Falcons were going down, Franz Pumaren and company weren’t going to do so without giving UP the fight of their lives. Easily out-matched in Game 1, the Adamson community was better-represented at the Big Dome in Game 2, cheering and jeering at every opportunity. Names of the head coach and players were printed displayed in big letterings, with the hope it would provide inspiration in the face of adversity. Fans unapologetically turned on the flashlights of their mobile phones to the point where the game barker had to repeatedly ask them to cut it out, but to no avail.
UP went ahead by 11 in the first half, although Adamson fought back. The Maroons then built a 16-point lead in the 3rd quarter, but in the blink of an eye, the Soaring Falcons effortlessly erased it. If University of the Philippines wanted its spot in history, Adamson made sure they had to leave everything on the floor, which is why in the final period, Akhuetie had to lie by his team’s bench, his head facing down a towel, as he got treatment, while Desiderio limped his way in the early minutes of OT.
For the longest time, the Fighting Maroons played the role of David to their opponents’ Goliath, but against Adamson, they were taking on opponents who did time playing the role of outsiders looking in as well. Don’t forget: those years UP was in the bottom of the league standings, Adamson was right there along with them, also wondering when their time of relevancy would arrive. That season the Maroons had one win and consequently celebrated with a bonfire, remember who they defeated?
When Pumaren came over to change the team’s culture, everyone knew better years were on the horizon. The Falcons built their team around Jerrick Ahamisi, Sean Manganti, and Papi Sarr. Guys like Jerom Lastimosa, who had his breakout moment on Wednesday, Jonathan Espeleta, Simon Camacho, and more were recruited from the provinces for the once-in-a-lifetime chance of playing in the grandest stage of college basketball. Almost everyone on that team has been an underdog in their lives. Give them an accomplished champion like Pumaren who still carries an underdog chip on his own shoulder, and you have an army who will put you through basketball war.
“Why not us?” they asked the entire season. Why not them, indeed?
That’s why UP had to dig a little deeper to secure this triumph. Each shot in the 4th quarter carried the same magnitude as a potential game-winner. Each point immensely mattered but was a struggle to attain. Fans from both sides held their breath at every little thing: loose balls, free throws, passes, and rebounds. Players bent down to catch their breath. Those in audience received text messages from family and friends who pointed that out, to which they responded that they, too, were feeling the emotional stress of such a demanding game.
When the Maroons needed one more stop to begin their celebration, Lastimosa replaced ecstasy with misery by hitting the most ballsy shot you’ll ever see from a college player with a season on the line. When Adamson went ahead by 6 in the extra session, you could feel the vibe in the air change: tears of joy threatened to turn into tears of sadness in the UP crowd; fans celebrating on their feet sat back down in disbelief; shouts of “On the way na, UP!” was exchanged by deafening silence.
Then, slowly by slowly, UP fought back. Diego Dario, a UPIS product and one of the seniors who preached “not today,” hit the biggest jumper of his career. Juan and Bright did what they do best. When Ahanmisi succumbed to injury, it set up the perfect ending for Desiderio to take over.
In the biggest fights, when you strike is more important than how often you do it. UP’s captain went 4-of-20 from the floor in what could have been his final performance, but each of those made shots was a knockout blow to the jaw of Adamson. The final pair, when Desiderio converted a tough, go-ahead three-pointer and then danced his way to a fadeaway dagger, were lethal and career-defining.
What an epic ride it’s been for the guy who made this all possible. A journey that started years ago for Desiderio when he decided to move from Cebu to Diliman finally came full circle. In between, UP’s would-be superstar faced criticism for shooting too much and challenging his teammates to become fearless. Eventually, he convinced his best friend to join him in his mission. He improved his game through tireless resiliency. He started to trust his teammates. Then, in the perfect moment, he learned how to be the hero to save the day.
"It wasn't an easy journey, but it's all worth it,” he said.
It absolutely is, because winning cures everything. From the many months of preparation that could have been for naught in a matter of seconds, to the countless mornings icing sore body parts, to the emotional roller coaster of dealing with a UAAP season, and up to knowing you have an entire university counting on you, winning makes everything okay.
On Wednesday, we all witnessed the Fighting Maroons’ most unforgettable victory in the last 3 decades because 16 boys came together with the goal of achieving something beyond their own individual selves.
We witnessed a moment that many of UP’s youth will one day tell their grandchildren as they look back at the best memories of their lives.
We watched the beginning of a new era, one where the UP Fighting Maroons have undisputedly secured their place amongst college basketball’s elite.
We got to see all of that because when it came down to choosing between winning or misery, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons were not going to have their hearts broken.
Welcome back to the finals, UP. It’s been way too long.
The Battle of Katipunan awaits. – Rappler.com