Here’s college basketball’s dirty little open secret: it’s not always pretty. Beyond the glitz and glamour and the television guestings and endorsement deals, the actual product on the basketball court isn’t always fun to consume. 

The best example of this: the Round 1 clash between the Adamson Soaring Falcons versus the UP Fighting Maroons. While the game did end in overtime and both teams were separated by just a point, how either team got to that result wasn’t pleasing to the eyes at all. Lots of botched plays, turnovers, and most importantly, unorganized basketball. If you wanted to compare it to an artwork, you’d think about abstract art. It’s… something. But you’d hesitate to call that thing beautiful. Instead, casual consumers will find ways to make fun of that art and poke at its flaws. College basketball is much of the same

UP and the UST Growling Tigers, the 2nd and 3rd seeds of the ongoing UAAP basketball tournament, are part of this abstract art boat. While they boast of a lot of talent, they’re also filled with flaws. For UP, the most glaring issue with them has been their inability to play elite basketball for a 40 minute period. Their lack of chemistry on offense has been pinpointed as the most common reason for this. For UST, it’s their tendency to live and die by the three. They have the option of adding more drives or cutting action to free up their players, but instead, they rely on the three-point shot to win games. 

These flaws had started to pop up during the second round. For UP, they had lost to FEU in overtime to open the second half of the season, failing to completely come back from the double digit deficit they faced. For UST, FEU and Ateneo shut them down by showing how to make the Growling Tigers uncomfortable from beyond the arc. It was easy to poke fun of both teams, kind of like how some writers make fun of college basketball. In fact, it would have been easier to just not watch the product at all. It’s flawed. Why even watch?

Yet on October 16, 2019, the Mall of Asia Arena was filled while millions from the country watched from their TV sets. The Fighting Maroons and the Growling Tigers were set to go up against one another, a battle between two teams in the race for the second seed. It wasn’t just this narrative which made people watch the game. There was also substance to their consumption. 

Renzo Subido. Ricci Rivero. CJ Cansino. Kobe Paras. Big names who have received plenty of endorsement deals and have been plastered on television sets for years now. But they didn’t get those by just being good looking. They got it for the very same reasons people continue to watch college basketball: talent and potential.

These players are collegiate level players. They’re not even professionals yet. When you look at it from that lens, it’s easy to understand why games in the UAAP can get messy, to the point that it’s even unwatchable. But in the same haystack of turnovers and botched plays are the few needles that give people reasons to watch the UAAP. Renzo Subido’s electric scoring ability. CJ Cansino’s display of potential from last season. Kobe Paras’ and Ricci Rivero’s otherworldly athleticism. That’s must watch basketball and fans are willing to wait for those few needles to come.

 

But yesterday, we didn’t just get few needles. We got a box full of it to the point that we wanted all of it to be injected in our very being. It was one of the few times where the talent of these players and teams met with the potential we’ve attached to them for so long now.

During the first quarter, the Fighting Maroons ran more varied offensive sets to their attack. Instead of spamming the pick and roll like they used to the last games, they added some more post action which used Bright Akhuetie’s ability to create from down low. 

It clearly surprised the Growling Tigers as their defense wasn’t ready for this development from UP. But they didn’t blink as they had a counter of their own in the form of their three-point shooting. During the first quarter alone, they made a whopping SEVEN threes, defiant against the plea of people for them to take more shots from inside. It started with CJ Cansino making three straight from downtown. Eventually, Sherwin Concepcion joined the party by making a couple as well. The question was: could they sustain it?

They same could be asked from the Fighting Maroons as consistency has been an issue from them all season long. To be fair to both teams, they were slightly able to sustain their excellence as the game went on. But fatigue and pressure can break even the most composed of teams. Eventually, you go back to your bread and butter action out of sheer instinct. UP started to run more pick and roll. UST started to shoot threes again. By the end of the third quarter, the game was still exciting. But it was slowly going back to abstract art territory with the small errors both teams were making.

Here’s another dirty little secret of college basketball: the level of passion is unlike any other. This level of passion is so unmatched that it causes players to go out of their comfort zones with regards to how they play the sport. At the end of the day, basketball players want to win basketball games. That’s what they’re passionate about. That’s what they want. That’s exactly what UP and UST showed during the last 10 minutes of their 2nd round clash.

All of a sudden, UP locked in. Their defense had been up and down the entire season, but for 10 minutes, the team joined forces to try and deny the Growling Tigers from scoring, all for the sake of creating separation between them and the pack in the race for the second seed.

It started out very well for UP. UST’s offense forces defenses to switch a lot, something which requires plenty of dedication and discipline. The Fighting Maroons showed these two things as they fought against screens and stuck to their men like glue for most of the fourth quarter. From trying to catch up, UP had suddenly started to gain control of the game. This was new for basketball fans; they’d been used to seeing UP either catch up from leads out of desperation or hold on to them for that very same reason. Instead, they weren’t playing not to lose. They were playing to win, with a convincing win so close to their hands once Kobe Paras made a three with less than two minutes left in the game. 

The Growling Tigers could have easily given up right then and there. These were the talented Fighting Maroons starting to realize the peak of their powers right in front of them. Talent reigns supreme. Suddenly this talent was starting to mesh together. But the Growling Tigers have never been one to throw in the towel. Whatever they lacked in talent they made up for with smarts and grit. 

UST never let go of the rope. Even when UP was threatening to take control, they found ways to make threes which would repulse whatever run the Fighting Maroons were making. After that Kobe three, they made a basket, then they followed it up with a stop. It was a one possession game, with the opportunity to tie or grab the lead right there for them. 

78-76. UST could have gone with the safe shot, a two. But they’re defiant. They went for a three, make or miss.

The issue with UST’s threes versus FEU was they were predictable. They still shot a ton of threes against UP, but the adjustment was, they ran a lot of drive and kick action to their arsenal. Aldin’s system has never been just threes. It’s been get good offensive action to run to get those threes the team wants so bad. 

Off of this play, Subido penetrated with the option of dropping the ball of to Chabi inside. But with that action being sniffed out, he shifted gears and passed it off to Brent Paraiso in the left corner. With UP’s defense failing to rotate properly, Paraiso had all the space and rhythm to make the basket. Rise up, swish. UST had gotten the lead and this time, for good. 

By the end of the game, UST emerged as the victors, 84-78. But despite having just one winner, you could sense the joy from all around the basketball community after that game. It wasn’t just exciting. It was also quality basketball with two teams realizing the peak of their powers in a 40 minute epic. What they presented was not abstract. Instead, it was organized madness, the type which makes college basketball such a fun product to consume. When talent, smarts, and passion blend into one, we get content that’s properly, and worthy, of being called art.