Atin ‘to. Matatapang.
When the UP Fighting Maroons won versus the De La Salle Green Archers two weeks ago, it felt like it was everything for UP then. This was their first trip to the postseason after 21 years. The taste of success was absolutely delicious, and the community was savoring every moment.
That was a part of the problem though, the Final Four SEEMED like it was everything from the outside looking in. There was already this feeling of satisfaction from some members of the community. Kota na. Goods na ‘to. It was like being so elated over getting that tres, after expecting that singko. It was easy to count the Fighting Maroons out then.
Other than that satisfaction some fans felt, they were also set to face a monster Adamson Soaring Falcons squad. This was a group that was HUNGRY to make it to the Finals, after experiencing heartbreak as a second seed seven years ago.
The numbers weren’t looking good for UP. They may have had the talent to contend versus Adamson, but in the postseason, experience sticks out. It’s tired, but it holds true. The Final Four is a completely different animal compared to regular season basketball. It overwhelmed even the most talented of teams, and UP looked like it was going to be next.
When Game 1 started, the Fighting Maroons looked jittery. Even their captain, Paul Desiderio, as thick-faced as he was, did not have a good start in his first Final Four game. He scored ZERO points during the first half, clearly rattled by Adamson’s stingy defense. All things considered, they were down by just one point against the Soaring Falcons by the end of the first half. Yet there was this lingering feeling of an avalanche that would come by the time the second half rolled along.
There was an avalanche, except it came from the side of the Maroons.
Desiderio and UP woke up, and their captain unloaded nine points during the third quarter alone to lead UP. The Soaring Falcons clawed back, but Desiderio was there to repulse whatever run Adamson had to the tune of 10 points during the fourth quarter. By the end of it all, UP survived, winning 73-71 against Adamson.
The series boiled down to three words: do or die. Yet, there were some who felt, Okay, mission accomplished. They finally won their first Final Four game.
Or was it really mission accomplished?
Papasok ‘to. Matatalino.
After days of bantering, the day finally arrived. November 28, 2018, at the Araneta Coliseum. One team would go to the Finals for the first time in decades, while the other would settle for a third place finish. Plenty was on the line, and heart, as per usual, was at the forefront of this clash.
To the surprise of many, while UP had been bannering heart for their entire campaign, they gained control by playing smart against the Soaring Falcons. Granted, the game started out rough for both squads. In fact, UP even committed five early fouls in just a matter of the game’s first three minutes. It looked like it would boil down to who would blink first as both teams looked tense.
Coming off the bench, Juan settled his teammates down and went to their bread and butter, ball screens. He’s the best at this in the UAAP (best in college basketball? Maybe Robert Bolick has something to say about that), and it was in full display during the second quarter. He was getting great looks from all over the court, and slowly but surely, UP was able to create separation versus Adamson.
They entered halftime up by nine points, with all the momentum in the world in their favor. Was this it? Was everything finally falling into place for the Fighting Maroons?
3rd quarter, 2:39 remaining.
With less than five minutes left, Juan Gomez de Liano couldn’t help but wince, as Simon Camacho flashed four fingers to the Adamson crowd. Just a few moments ago, the Fighting Maroons were leading, 60-44, their largest in the entire series. All of a sudden, it was cut down to single digits as Adamson grabbed momentum towards their favor. Not helping the case of the Fighting Maroons was Gomez de Liano fouling Camacho, his FOURTH of the contest.
The Soaring Falcons were vicious, pressing the Fighting Maroons to oblivion, and attacking the UP defense to no end. This was how Adamson loved to play. They choked you down into their grit and grind style, using high motor players to make life difficult for you.
By the end of the quarter, Adamson suddenly found themselves up, 67-64. It was only fitting their last basket for 3rd icame off a turnover, with Jerom Lastimosa finishing the play with a layup.
The Araneta Coliseum was night and day. On one end, the Adamson crowd was raucous, as if they could smell their first Finals appearance since 1992. On the other end was the UP gallery, shocked at what had just happened. One couldn’t help but think, Was UP’s dream season coming to an end?
Atin ‘to. Papasok ‘to. Matatapang. Matatalino.
It could have been a recipe for disaster, but UP didn’t falter. They accepted the challenge of their best player facing foul trouble, by living up to their name as Fighting Maroons. Adamson had momentum, but they didn’t allow it to get into their heads. They continued to push on with how they played basketball. Go run a ball screen, in the process, move. The baskets will come. Just focus and play your game.
At the end of the day, the game boiled down to one key thing in playoff basketball; creation. UP had multiple players capable of creating something on the fly. On the other hand, Adamson was short on players who had experience in doing this. It didn’t help Jerrick Ahanmisi succumbed to cramps during overtime, leaving Adamson one creator short.
It boiled down to a moment. 87 all, 20 seconds remaining, Paul Desiderio isolated versus Sean Manganti. UP’s clutch man against Adamson’s clutch man. The hero of Diliman, versus Diliman’s greatest nightmare.
During the third quarter, Paul mouthed, “Atin ‘to”, while on the line, and the shot resulted to a miss. He never winced even if he missed. He simply smirked, as if to say, “Ah, eh ganun eh. Hahaha.” Peak Paul Desiderio, forever defiant.
At that point when he was isolated versus Manganti, he was 3/19. Before that, he had already missed on a number of isolation plays, shots at daggers versus the Soaring Falcons.
As the clock continued to tick and the ball yoyo-ed in between Paul’s hands in that moment, you still knew he would take that shot.
He slowly started to make his step, leaning to the left, then suddenly crossing over to the right. He made a burst towards the right, only to position a post up against Manganti.
It did not look good from the outside looking in. But all of these moments were done, with purpose.
He faked from his right shoulder, faked a shot once again, got Manganti out of balance, then with zero hesitation, he pulled up from the right elbow.
Matatapang. Matatalino. Walang takot, kahit kanino.
Buckets. UP was now up by 89-87. As Paul walked to the bench, he flashed one finger to his teammates. One stop. That’s all they needed to do, to continue on with their incredible run.
Adamson ran a play that had Jonathan Espeleta receiving the ball off a screen from Sean Manganti. The clearly was to trigger a hand-off between Espeleta and the inbounder, Jerom, then it would flow off that action. Lastimosa would have had options anyway. Manganti, after the screen, curled towards corner.
UP read the initial action well, which was the Manganti screen for Espeleta. Adamson looked lost. They just wanted to do one thing; inbound the basketball. At the end of it all, Simon Camacho caught it, then he was able to successfully hand it off to their hero at that moment, Lastimosa.
Lastimosa attacked, then suddenly found himself free at the right wing. With zero hesitation, he pulled up. The entire arena held their breath. The Adamson faithful with hope that it would go in, while the UP faithful begged it wouldn’t.
“Please Lord, wag!” one fan shouted behind me.
The ball hit the left side of the board. Bright Akhuetie tipped it out. UP gained possession, threw it up, and couldn’t help but scream in joy. They’d done it. The upset was complete, as they were going back to the Finals, after 32 long years.
They were defiant, constantly saying, this series would be theirs despite the numbers going against their favor. It started with that brashness we’ve grown accustomed to when talking about anyone from the University of the Philippines.
That bravery. Tapang.
It looked foolish, but at the end of the day, they found ways on how to make their pronouncements come true. Talino.
The UP Fighting Maroons are back in the Finals. They were able to do it by embracing their core principles as a team. Scratch that. As a school.