After their semi-final victory over the Adamson University Soaring Falcons, fans of the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons are looking back at their steady transformation from being the men’s basketball whipping boys to one of the sports’ top contenders.
Paul Desiderio, who struggled in the first four quarters, capped an 11-3 UP comeback in the overtime period to chip away at a 78-84 deficit early in the extra period. He capitalized on a series of errors by Adamson by scoring UP’s two last baskets in the period and seal the 89-87 win.
Juan Gomez de Liaño had 30 points, 20 of which came in the first half. Desiderio and Most Valuable Player Bright Akhuetie added 16 and 13 respectively.
With the win, UP makes its first finals appearance in 32 years. In 1986, the Maroons led by would-be basketball legends Eric Altamirano, Benjie Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc beat the University of the East Red Warriors to give the state university its first of the men’s basketball trophy in the modern era of the UAAP.
They will be facing defending champions Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles in the finals, the team that swept them in the elimination round.
UP head coach Bo Perasol, a former Maroon cager himself, turned emotional after the game and said that he wanted to soak in the victory before planning for the showdown with their next-door rivals.
“Right now, what I need for us to do is just to settle down, make sure we enjoy this first. But probably after 12 hours tomorrow, we need to sit down and think about what we’re going to do, in order for us to have a chance against Ateneo,” he said in media interviews after the historic game.
Supporters of the Maroons, some of whom witnessed the squad’s previous struggles, are thankful for its moment of glory.
“Humayo’t itanghal, giting at tapang
Mabuhay ang pag-asa ng bayan”#UPFight 🏀
— The Professional Heckler (@hecklerforever8) November 28, 2018
Atin to. Saating lahat ito. Salamat sa mga batang ginagalingan para saating lahat 🙏🏽✊🏽 pic.twitter.com/cbMtN1MOJM
— Mikee (@_mikeereyes) November 28, 2018
21 years of darkness
The state university had a promising start in the early days of the Final Four format. They made the semi-finals in 1996 and 1997, led by the likes of Paolo Mendoza and the late Brian Gahol. They lost on both occasions however, falling to the UST Growling Tigers in 1996 and to the FEU Tamaraws in 1997.
The Maroons then would fall short of making the final four in the years that came after, despite UP’s athletic teams succeeding in other events aside from men’s basketball.
The squad showed glimmers of hope in the 2000s. It produced PBA-ready stars such as Marvin Cruz, Magi Sison and Jay-R Reyes but consistently fell short of just making the top half. They finished fifth in 2004 and 2005, sixth in 2006.
The squad then slumped into its “dark ages” from 2007 to 2013. It finished in last place in six out those seven seasons, and was winless in 2007, 2010, and 2013.
Sparks of hope
In the early 2010s, Nowhere to go but UP, a group formed by UP alumni, banded together to provide assistance to the school’s varsity teams. According to the group, helping the men’s basketball team rise from its years-long slump was one of its main goals.
In 2014, the Maroons beat the Falcons 77-64 to end a 27-game losing streak that spanned two seasons. A bonfire was thrown to celebrate the occasion. While it was seen as a token victory, it only marked the start of UP’s steady return to title excellence.
In 2015, it finished seventh with a 3-11 slate.
In 2016, the Maroons produced its first Mythical Five member in a decade: Paul Desiderio, a third-year player who was a high school star in Cebu. Desiderio along with prized rookie Javi Gomez de Liaño helped the Maroons finish sixth with a 5-9 record.
In January 2017, Nigerian center Akhuetie, who played two excellent seasons with the University of Perpetual Health Altas in the NCAA, announced his transfer to the state university.
UP finished fifth with a 6-8 record later that year, its highest finish since 2005. De Liaño’s younger brother Juan, a former Juniors MVP with the UP Integrated School Junior Maroons, was named Rookie of the Year.
In early 2018, Ricci Rivero, previously a star with the De La Salle Green Archers, announced that he would be transferring to UP. A few months later, Kobe Paras, who played in the US NCAA, announced that he would be coming home to play for his father Benjie’s alma mater.
With Akhuetie finally eligible to play, the Maroons had an uneven start to their Season 81 campaign that year. They went 1-3 in their first four games and finished 3-4 at the end of the first round but went 5-2 in the second half of the elimination round. Crucial victories helped them leapfrog over traditional powerhouses FEU and DLSU,who also had 8-6 records, and clinch the third seed in the Final Four.
UP will be facing its next-door neighbor Ateneo, who have six titles in the past ten years, in the first ever “Battle of Katipunan” in the finals. Game 1 will be on Saturday, December 1 3:30 p.m. at the Mall of Asia Arena.