MANILA, Philippines – Where were you, a little past 7 pm, on the night of November 14, 2018? In the future, will you look back at those few minutes and have a smile on your face? Will you think back and find glee at the thought that you were one of the few lucky thousands who witnessed something so special?
Or will you not even see the point in such a down-to-the-clock question?
At 7:10 pm on Wednesday, something truly unforgettable took place. The final buzzer sounded around the Mall of Asia Arena, igniting a fury of emotions. After a 21-year absence, the UP Fighting Maroons were finally back in the UAAP Final Four round after dismantling the DLSU Green Archers, 97-81.
Aside from a brief six-point deficit they faced in the 1st quarter, the Maroons were in absolute command of the contest the entire way. UP played harder than DLSU and provided the type of guts and passion required to come out victorious in such a high-stakes game. Two decades of patience, pain, and heartbreak came to an end, replaced by feelings of relief, excitement, and ecstasy.
When coach Bo Perasol took over the UP basketball program 3 years ago, his goal was crisp and clear: To end the losing culture of the Fighting Maroons. Year by year, the University of the Philippines improved its win total and founds blue-chip recruits. Slowly by slowly, this proud institution was sending subtle messages of their imminent arrival in the higher ranks of UAAP basketball. “Nowhere to go but UP” turned into “going somewhere.”
On Wednesday, everything was validated. Everything. The Gomez de Liaño brothers, homegrown products out of UPIS, entered in the 1st quarter and overwhelmed La Salle with a rain of three-pointers. Other guys like Bright Akhuetie, Jun Manzo, and Paul Desiderio followed suit and repeatedly avoided the possibility of any DLSU comeback.
To be fair to De La Salle, their team was playing for the fourth time in 11 days, which is a workload that can easily exhaust a 13-man lineup. Unfortunately for the Green Archers, it was the worst possible timing against the worst possible opponent.
For so many years, a game between UP and La Salle was a battle between the perennial underdog and the accomplished champions. With a Final Four spot on the line on Wednesday, UP played so well that it looked like the roles were reversed. For the first time in decades, the Fighting Maroons did not enter the court against an opponent like La Salle intimidated. They played with so much efficiency, swagger, and belief they were better that the Green Archers were left without answers.
Here’s the thing: for the first time in ages, UP finally has a roster with enough star power that they can compete with anyone in the UAAP. Early in the season when the Maroons got off to a 3-5 start, they tried to play with that as their main philosophy. Something happened midway through the year, when “16Strong” instead became the team’s fighting mantra. Ever since then, this has looked like a championship-caliber band of brothers.
Before the game, UP’s boys were loose and relaxed. During warm-ups in the locker room, they were taking turns singing songs much to the amusement of each other. Prior to the start of the 1st quarter, each player on the team made it a point to huddle up near mid-court for a pre-game battle cry. When the boys noticed Desiderio wasn’t around, they made sure to look for their team captain before locking hands and calling break. After each basket made by a Maroon, his teammates celebrated their hearts out on the bench.
Camaraderie. Togetherness. Sacrifice. 16 Strong prevailed.
This is what makes UP such a dangerous team, and why the Soaring Falcons should take extra precautions even after sweeping the Maroons in the eliminations:
UP’s roster is as loaded as anyone’s in college basketball, yet these boys still see themselves as underdogs who have to stick together. The unwavering spirit that was present during the years the Maroons weren’t good enough talent-wise to compete has remained, and is now complemented by some of the most explosive guys to ever play in the UAAP. It’s a recipe for disaster for anyone who faces this team, which is on a roll and is backed by one of the most passionate fan bases you’ll see in Philippine hoops.
“Before, the idea is, malakas ang kalaban, ano kaya ang mangyayari? Ngayon, it doesn’t matter. We believe we can win,” said Perasol after the game.
(Before, we wonder what would happen every time we go up against a strong opponent. But now, it doesn't matter. We believe we can win.)
"We take it one step at a time. Like I said, it's a step closer to our dream which is to win a championship, so one step at a time," said Akhuetie.
On Wednesday, it all felt like a dream. Even before time melted away on the game clock, the “feels” were all over the place. Fans in the UP crowd, both the older ones who went through year after year of losing, and some of the newer faces who grew up with the changing in eras, shed tears and shared hugs. Players of the team couldn’t control their emotions. A few were riveting in the energy of the community. Some bowed their heads and sent praises above. Others let the waterworks show after watching years of perseverance bear its fruit.
When Perasol was interviewed by the broadcast team after the game, his players couldn’t resist video-bombing and crashing the telecast. The joy on their faces was undeniable. Akhuetie bear-hugged his head coach from behind while Manzo jumped up and down continuously, unable to contain his exhilaration. Desiderio then walked over near to the front rows, raised his hand in triumph, and received praises from fans.
There’s a lot of reasons why Wednesday’s win is special to the boys, but here’s one which is true for every single member of the team, coaching staff, and management:
Years from now, when each of them think about the day UP ended a 21-year nightmare, they can say that they were a part of that. No matter what happens with their careers and lives going forward, they will play the images of a celebration in their heads. They will remember singing the school hymn unlike they ever had before. They will remember the screams from those who waited for them outside the arena. They will remember that they accomplished something so great that no one or nothing can ever take away from them.
As for the other people there on that day? Well, let me tell you that was one hell of a magical moment.
Nothing was going to stop UP from making history. – Rappler.com