Impossible to reality: U.P.'s title dream gets closer than ever



MANILA, Philippines – Have you ever found yourself speechless amidst a sea of chaos? Have you ever been in a situation where you were unable to find the words to describe the spectacle you just witnessed? Have you ever been caught by surprise when you thought you had already seen it all? 

On Saturday, November 24, the UP Fighting Maroons beat the Adamson Soaring Falcons in Game 1 of their Final Four series. When the final buzzer rang all around Mall of Asia Arena, which was lucky to host one of the greatest games in UAAP history, it set into motion one of the craziest reactions you’ll ever see from a fan base. 

The moment of it all was indescribable, because you had to be there to feel the frenzy. It was like a movie.

UP fans, many who were part of each season in the Fighting Maroons’ 21-year absence from the Final Four, displayed such innocent passion and glee. Some tried to run onto the court, while many others shared hugs, shed tears, and raised hands up in thanks.

Javi Gomez De Liaño jumped on the back of MVP Bright Akhuetie, who exemplified the meaning of “Most Valuable” in the final seconds of a game that will forever be remembered not only by historians of the country’s top school, but in all of Philippine sports. Paul Desiderio, a captain in every form, jumped to the railings, flexed his muscles, and screamed his heart out while receiving praises from the Fighting Maroons community, before putting one finger up in the air and bellowing:


Yes, one more.

One more win, and the UP Maroons will complete their upset over the Adamson Falcons.

One more win, and Desiderio’s last ride goes further.

One more win, and UP is in the finals.

To know what a UAAP Final Four game is like involves having to be there live. It still looks amazing on television or gadgets, but what makes this collegiate league so special is the intensity in the air when the playoffs begin. It’s a beautiful scene. For first-timers, it’s like watching a play for the very first time and leaving with the knowledge that nothing else in the world can match it. The Final Four is a survival of the fittest.

If you’re one of the guys on the court playing in such an environment, how do you fight the temptation of feeling like a superhero? An entire crowd behind you, cheering every step of the way. Come up with the big play, and you’ll be remembered forever. No one can ever take that away from you.

But the pressure can also feel like a chokehold. All season long, Adamson did not look like a team that had 7 new faces. Blanketed by the individual brilliance of Jerrick Ahanmisi, Sean Manganti, and Papi Sarr, coach Franz Pumaren’s boys were able to go under the radar and play their roles perfectly on the way in leading the Soaring Falcons to the second seed.

But on Saturday, with Ahanmisi and Manganti unable to find their rhythm in the first 3 quarters, the weaknesses of the rest of the guys started to show, and UP took advantage. For the first time, Adamson looked like a young team stopped in its tracks by the brighter lights of the Final Four stage.

Even UP had its challenges early on, with Desiderio going scoreless in the first half and Akhuetie unable to have his usual high-scoring output as he secretly battled a flu throughout the do-or-die contest. Some of the home run plays the Maroons fearlessly executed during the elimination round were harder to perform. More guys started to push their hands downwards while asking teammates not to rush. Confidence was replaced by nerves.

Truth be told, it is more difficult. Games turn into more of a battle than usual as the players claw, scratch, and elbow their way out of tight spots. Getting clean looks becomes more difficult. Even the referees begin to let the players play through the physicality, aware that a single call can alter the outcome of a very important match.

But in the 4th quarter, Adamson did what it does best: attack you cerebrally. The classic method of a Franz Pumaren-coached team, the Soaring Falcons waited for the right moment when the momentum of the game turned to their side and took complete advantage. Despite the double-digit lead UP built in the second half, the relentless Falcons repeatedly played their system and effectively found the correct mishaps to turn the contest in a close game.

Sarr started the run by continuously scoring in the paint and flexing his muscles to Akhuetie and an irked UP crowd. Ahanmisi, who looked frustrated the entire game, started hitting outside shots and displayed a rare show of emotion. Manganti’s one-handed push shots made him look like the second coming of Mac Cardona, while guys like Lastimosa, Espeleta, and Camacho did the little things that make this team elite. 

But the Maroons would not be denied. Not today.

A few hours before UP tipped off against Adamson, MOA Arena looked like an ocean of maroon. Everywhere you went, there were those in UP colors at restaurants, cafes, ticket booths, all the way to inside the arena. It was similar to the scene when Ateneo or La Salle has a big game, only this time, blue and green weren’t the dominant figures anymore. It indeed is a new generation of UAAP basketball.

And that’s why UP could not afford to suffer defeat, not when they had so many things going their way.

Everything played out like a movie, with guys performing their roles in stupendous fashion.

Desiderio, the hero who embodies the passion and spirit of being a Fighting Maroon. Jun Manzo, his best friend who joined him in this mission of establishing a new age for UP basketball. It’s often that a team’s personality follows that of its leaders, that’s why it should come as no surprise that the Maroons are relentless behind their two main figures, who give their heart and soul to this team every game.

Juan Gomez De Liaño, the talented young sparkplug who personifies University of the Philippines’ confidence and belief in itself. Javi Gomez De Liaño, the reliable character who’s ready to deliver when his pals need it the most. 

Akhuetie, the glue who holds this team together. The guy who’s always there to save the day.

Of course, UP had its obstacles along the way. Adamson wasn’t going to give the victory to the Maroons, even if the Falcons had the liberty of twice-to-beat. Sarr was a machine down low. Ahanmisi always threatened to explode at any given moment. Manganti, who’s been the villain for Desiderio and company in Season 81, bravely hit those two clutch free throws before Akhuetie’s game-winner and will absolutely be determined to put these Maroons down for good on Wednesday.

But Adamson will have to deal not only with these determined boys of coach Bo Perasol but also with a UP crowd ready to follow their players until the very end. No matter the time or score of the game, the Maroons’ supporters are always ready to explode at any given moment, which in a stage as high-stakes as the Final Four is absolutely significant.

And when you think about it, that kind of crowd can carry a team to greater heights.

A crowd that has the ability to make the floors of the MOA Arena shake as they stomp their feet to the cheers of “UP FIGHT.”

To the cheers of “MVP.” 

To the cheers of “UP.”

To the cheers of “Atin ‘to.”

If you’re from UP, right now, think about the years of futility. Think about the years of embarrassing losses. Think about the years of no victories. Think about the years when opponents would say “UP lang ‘yan.” 

Think about the years when you watched teams like La Salle, Ateneo, and FEU win championship after championship while you watched on, wondering when your time would come.

Your time is closer than ever.

Once again: the UP Fighting Maroons are one win away from making the UAAP finals.

Now, think about that. What a time to be alive. –