The UP Fighting Maroons had all the reason to be down in that moment.
It was December 5, 2018, when the Ateneo Blue Eagles secured their second straight championship with the Maroons as their victim. It was a dominant display by Ateneo, as Thirdy Ravena pumped in 38 points, while Ange Kouame helped out with 22 points and 20 rebounds. UP looked helpless for most of that Game 2. Helplessness is possibly the worst feeling an athlete can feel in a game. UP felt that, as they had nothing to hold on during that do or die game.
They had all the reason to weep. But amidst the sorrow, there were voices surrounding them. One in particular, stood out.
“I do not want you to look down. I want you to be proud, because I want you to be proud for them. They are proud of you,” said Coach Bo Perasol as he pointed to the raucous UP crowd.
“You achieved so much! You sacrificed so much! That’s why they’re here. So do not look down. We will be better. You have to be proud for them.”
The Maroons, led by their seniors, held their heads up high and sang UP Naming Mahal one last time for Season 81. This was the season where UP’s pride was finally completely reborn. This was the season where Coach Bo Perasol had finally found a home where he could truly himself. The future was bright for the Fighting Maroons. They had all the reason to be hopeful and to have their heads held up high.
The UP Fighting Maroons couldn’t help but put their heads down as they left the court of the Smart Araneta Coliseum last September 7, 2019. They had just lost to the UST Growling Tigers, 85-69, after struggling to keep up with the pace of UST. It was tough to swallow, that was for sure. Just like how it was tough to accept they had just lost the Finals nine months ago. Once again, voices surrounded them.
Except this time, these people sounded nothing like those from December of 2018. Instead of pride, embarrassment could be felt from the words which were coming out on social media after the UST game. Plenty of blame was being thrown around, from Ricci Rivero’s abysmal shooting to Juan Gomez de Liano’s sub-par performance. But a lot of the finger-pointing was being directed at a coach. You had to make sure those blaming weren’t wearing blue. As a matter of fact, they were draped in maroon. This wasn’t 2013 anymore, as familiar as the scene felt. All pressure was on Coach Bo Perasol, as he became the scapegoat after UP’s loss.
#BoHasToGo. #FirePerasol. We’ve seen these before, but we never expected to be witness to this as Bo coached for the Fighting Maroons. This was supposed to be his home, his second chance after falling as hard as he did when he coached Ateneo. But even home can be harsh to you. This was that moment for him, as pressure has started to mount on UP.
There’s plenty that needs to be unpacked with everything that’s happened over the last 48 hours for the UP Fighting Maroons. The shift in mood was so sudden, as even five days ago, when UP barely escaped the FEU Tamaraws, the vibe within the community was as jubilant as it was during December. Was it an overreaction? Or most importantly, what even caused this reaction in the first place?
UP faithful thought this was it, the future they had held on to for the last nine months. More than just championship experience and the (faulty) belief that life is supposed to be linear, UP faithful were so excited for what came after Season 81 because they had big names in the wings for them at that time. They may have been losing the likes of Paul Desiderio and Diego Dario, but coming in were far more talented prospects; Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero. Both national team mainstays and proven commodities who are always mentioned in “Future of Philippine Basketball” conversations. It was simple math, right? UP was already a talented team led by Mythical Five members Juan Gomez De Liano and MVP Bright Akhuetie. Now they were adding these two dudes. Hype was aplenty. Expectations dramatically went up. Even the players themselves embraced the attention that was being rained down on them.
Championship or bust. That term which elicits fear in an instant. It is dreaded, but it can also be treated as an honor for some. It means the team has that kind of potential. UP has that kind of potential, no doubt about it. They knew. People knew. It was now a matter of putting the work in the court.
The trajectory should have been linear. But reality slapped them in the face and reminded them in life, nothing is linear. Bumps are par for the course and now, they had just stumbled upon quite a large one.
Losing by 16 points was a big bump. Voices continued to surround the Fighting Maroons, even as they trooped their way to the locker room after that game. But once they finally all came in the room, they could shut the door and have time for themselves.
Silence. For once, the team had to endure silence.
It could have been painful, the team had been accustomed to being rowdy and joyful as a team. But it could have also been sweet, because sometimes even the most painful of things can bring about the most delicious results.
Silence can be sweet. Most importantly, it is needed. At a time when the pressure is amped up like this, people deserve the luxury of silence. The mood is isolated, there is a certain feeling of control within one’s surroundings. Suddenly, the voices are gone. In reality, despite everyone that speaks, there’s only one voice who the UP Fighting Maroons should listen to at this point. He was the same one who lifted them up when they were down, brought them to the Finals for the first time after 32 years, and made the most out of the second chance which he was given.
Make no mistake about it, however, Coach Bo Perasol also has issues to iron out. Just because he should be the voice the players should listen to doesn’t mean he isn’t accountable for anything. In fact, he should be. He’s the head coach. He’s the one who’s built the culture surrounding the team. He’s also the one who built the system of this group. Right now, it’s a system that needs some fine-tuning especially after what they showed versus UST.
The 16 assists UP made versus UST is a bit misleading, as most of those came off passes to Bright Akhuetie off pick and roll action. In reality, however, UP looked lost on offense. There were far too many instances where they relied on two-man action to get their offense going, failing to involve the three other players on the court. Coach Bo already alluded to this after UP beat FEU last Wednesday, “We relied too much on our skillset.” Versus FEU, they got to escape. Versus UST, however, they had to pay the price.
More than relying on two-man action far too often, it’s also evident the chemistry of the Fighting Maroons in the basketball court isn’t as good as it should be. While Jun Manzo, Javi Gomez de Liano, and Bright have done well for UP, the rest have struggled to find their place in the team. The team’s only made 16.07 percent of their three-point attempts, with most of their takes not within the flow of their offense. It shows with their assist to turnover ratio, because while they’ve dished out 12 assists per game, this has been offset (in a negative way) by their 16.5 turnovers per game.
Juan GDL, in particular, has been missing the past two games, scoring just 5.5 points per game while scoring just 23.53 percent of his shot attempts. He’s only received some chances to attack, but not as much as he’d been used to for the last two seasons. Plenty of questions surround Juan, but what’s clear is that he hasn’t looked comfortable to start the season.
For Coach Bo and the Fighting Maroons, this was only their second game out of a minimum of 14. Yet even using the word “adjust” has brought about demons from the past.
“I’m not a believer of adjustments during the game,” said Coach Bo Perasol on July 7, 2013. Demons from the past of a different color, but are coming back to haunt Coach Bo as he faces new struggles wearing maroon. It’s just how life works sometimes; the past will find ways to creep in back to your present.
But Coach Bo’s present isn’t as gloomy as it was six years ago. He’s received a second chance with the Fighting Maroons, as the program gave him the opportunity to rediscover himself in the most natural way possible.
Now’s the time to showcase that rediscovery. The stakes are high and the pressure is officially on. Time to go out of that locker room and face the noise, whether positive or negative. The voices will continue to surround them, but they can’t control that. The only thing that should matter to them is the one voice which has always been with them since the very beginning. Trust, at this point, is of utmost importance for the Fighting Maroons. It’s up to them whether they’ll respond with their heads up high.