58.2 seconds left in overtime, game tied at 84, Jerrick Ahanmisi loses his defender, drives to the hoop, sees UP big man Bright Akhuetie closing out on him, and against his instincts, goes for the layup. The shot banks off the glass and into the basket as Ahanmisi collapses to the floor, clutches his hamstring which looks to be cramping up. He’s in pain, but the pain only gets worse with the events that followed.
The referee waived off the shot, calling it a foul on the floor despite the foul being whistled while Ahanmisi was clearly in the process of making the layup. As a result, Ahanmisi who could not get up because of cramps had to be replaced by Jonathan Espeleta who then split the free throws awarded, only because UP was in the penalty.
What could have been the dagger, which put the Soaring Falcons up by possibly three points, giving them the momentum in the last minute of play, instead turned into a one point dud and the reason to keep Adamson’s best player out of the game just when they needed him the most.
Instead of closing the game on a high, the Falcons were hard-pressed to stop the momentum of a confident Paul Desiderio, putting them a shot away from making the Finals yet again.
It hurt, worse than Ahanmisi’s cramped up leg.
As the congratulations poured on the Fighting Maroons for a well earned, well fought Finals appearance, the players, the hopefuls, who had every reason to believe that this time would be different, were inconsolable.
What Went Wrong
The Soaring Falcons showed their hand too soon in the season and were thus scouted, found out and solved.
There was no doubt from the seven other teams that the calling card of the Soaring Falcons this season would be their defense. After all, at the helm of this team was Coach Franz Pumaren who won multiple championships employing a specialized full court press. What they didn’t expect was just how intense it would be.
Unfortunately, teams caught on and were able to devise game plans to take away the Soaring Falcons’ biggest weapon.
First, it was the UP Fighting Maroons who figured out a way to break Adamson’s press. By having all five players wait at the backcourt to receive the inbound, they lessened the chances of giving up a turnover, more importantly, a turnover in the backcourt, forcing the Falcons to find offense through other means. While it didn’t notch them the win immediately, it took them the distance and gave other teams a solution which was soon copied.
The De La Salle Green Archers took notice and executed the same strategy, sending five players to receive the inbound, and then letting Aljun Melecio command their offense. This time, however, the Archers got the best of the Falcons.
Come Final Four, this was the exact same strategy the Maroons used to upset the Falcons. Taking away the turnovers also took away the Soaring Falcons’ main source of points. Averaging 71.9 points per game this season, the Falcons had a lot of ground to cover scoring-wise, which was normally the task of hot shooting Jerrick Ahanmisi. Unfortunately, Jerrick went Ahanmissing in Game 1 and his Game 2 outburst was too little too late.
It was the league’s ability to solve the Pumaren Press Puzzle and Adamson’s own inability to create new problems that saw their offensive efficiency go down at the end of the season. After ending the first round with a 93.67 offensive rating, good for 4th highest in the league, they sputtered out toward the end, finishing with an average 91.05 offensive rating, dropping their offensive output to 6th in the league, edged out by non-Final Four teams like De La Salle and National University.
In the end, all it took was getting paired up with a high octane offensive team in the semi-finals to spell their doom. MVP Bright Akhuetie handily broke the press for the Maroons, allowing Juan Gomez De Liano to go crazy in scoring, keeping the game close enough for Paul Desiderio to take over in the final minutes. Everything wrong with the Soaring Falcons this season was summed up in the last scoring attempt by Jerrick Ahanmisi, the effort, the guts, the fight against instinct, only to be waived off and not counted, then the pain that followed.
What Went Right
This season was the best the Soaring Falcons have looked in a long while, and it was the result of buying in, working and executing the Pumaren system. The defense was humming all season long, more than making up for their lack of offensive ability, literally feasting off the turnovers they produced.
Throughout the season the Falcons averaged 18.3 turnovers forced per game with a league-high 7.1 steals per game.
No sequence illustrates the Soaring Falcons game plan better than the final minute of the first half of their first game against Ateneo wherein they pounced on rookie SJ Belangel, forcing him to turn the ball over twice en route to turning a 9 point deficit into a 2 point lead.
Leading the team were the veteran holdovers from the previous years. Jerrick Ahanmisi and Papi Sarr continued to play vital roles in the team, increasing their value with the steadiness at which they commanded the tone of their team. Even when both of them were not scoring well, they were finding other ways to contribute to the team; Sarr would rebound like crazy in games that he was struggling to score, Ahanmisi was an offensive threat every minute he was on the floor. The maturity of the veteran core was definitely a bright spot for the Falcons, showcasing an upward trend in the development of their players.
New team captain Sean Manganti grew into his role well, going from being a role player in the past two seasons to a viable go-to scorer for the Falcons. His vast improvement got him recognized as the most improved player of the season and more importantly was a huge help in creating offense for the Falcons, especially with the way he was able to bully some of his defenders. It helped a lot that over the pre-season Sean Manganti started to develop his jump shot, making him a wider threat than before, diversifying his modes of attack and keeping defenders guessing when he has the ball.
Along with improved players was the remarkable breakout season of Simon Camacho, who was an X-factor in many games, giving the Falcons crucial “bonus points” off his grit and hustle. What was most remarkable was that nobody saw it coming. Before this season started, Camacho was “just” a tall defender who could block shots of the opposing bigs. This season he started showing off his development, running in transition and finishing fastbreak opportunities that just a season ago were not viable options for him. Much to the delight of the Adamson crowd, they got to see their homegrown hero wreck teams on the hardwood floor as though he were playing against the Engineering Department again on the jagged, uneven and cracked floors of the Ozanam Carpark.
Development was key in the Soaring Falcons’ run this season, as Coach Franz Pumaren showed yet again that he is still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to polishing diamonds in the rough. All of his players showed signs of improvement, some in more drastic ways than others, clearly, a good trajectory for the Falcons to be in.
The best part of this season was watching the rookies shine and flourish. Rookies Jerom Lastimosa, Conrad Catapusan, and Vince Magbuhos melded right into the system, each holding their own given the minutes they played, at times showing flashes of brilliance, a taste of what they will bring to the league with a few more months of polish.
With Coach Franz Pumaren officially indicating that he plans to stay with Adamson for the long haul, expect the rookies to only get better, especially Jerom Lastimosa who in his first year in the league showcased nerves of steel especially with the game-tying three-pointer in game 2 of the semi-finals.
Losing Sean Manganti to graduation will be a major setback, but the remaining cast and crew of the Falcons look like they are well equipped to keep pushing forward for another possible attempt at the title. If anything, the team has been on an unhindered ascending trajectory ever since Coach Franz took over, starting by making the Final Four and this year notching a twice-to-beat advantage. The next step to their climb will be the elusive Finals appearance and possibly a title, but it will be made more difficult as opposing teams begin to activate their prized recruits, while the defending champions polish off their military-precise play style.
The off-season awaiting the next one will be a busy one for the Falcons as they figure out how to continue their climb. New faces will need to step up to complement the old guns, but if all goes well, the future will be bright for the Adamson Soaring Falcons.