I will never forget my first Final Four experience.

Let’s start this off with a confession. I am a UP Fighting Maroons fan but I rarely watch their games live. To be honest, it’s so few that you can count the number of times with the fingers of one hand.

The convenience of online coverage, our busy schedules, and a lot of other factors come into play. Even during their emergence as a dark horse these past few seasons and into a legitimate Final Four contender this season, there was difficulty finding time for games.

However, when UP finally broke their 21-year drought into the Final Four, I knew this had to change. I said to myself, “Kailangan ko mapanuod ‘yung laro nila ng live.”  So without hesitation, when one of my friends (Shout-out to Mr. Rainer Agbayani) decided to organize the squad to troop to MOA Arena to witness Game 1 of UP vs. Adamson, I immediately said yes.

I will never forget how we prepared for this event.

A week before the game, we already had a communications line set-up and assigned certain tasks to certain people (e.g. who will book the tickets once it’s already out, who will take care of the “Victory Party”). We took this very seriously. We didn’t want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Photo Credit: Rainer Agbayani

Once the tickets were out, the persons assigned scrambled online to book all the tickets. There were 41 of us so you can only imagine their panic every time a transaction fails. Tickets were selling like hotcakes! Good thing was, at the end of the day, all 41 of us had a ticket. 2 separate sections in MOA Arena, not all seated together, and some even got seats on Adamson’s side – But nobody cared. The important thing was we got them. We’re watching the Final Four!

I will never forget what happened during game day.

November 24, 2018. Game Day.

I had a presentation for work. I knew about this scheduled presentation ahead of time and I was so glad I was allowed to be one of the first few to present so I could leave early. I think I can speak on behalf of other UP fans, everyone had to make time for this special day.

I was able to leave the office at around 2:00PM, and just to arrive on time, I did an Mbala by riding an Angkas just to get to MOA Arena before 3:30PM. I tell you, it wasn’t a smooth ride as we had to navigate through the EDSA traffic. Lucky for me, the driver was skilled and I was able to make it in one piece and more importantly, on time.

When I arrived in MOA, there were people in maroon shirts left and right. Man, the UP fans really came in droves to support the Fighting Maroons. As I entered the arena, it was electric. It was shades of the UP crowd during the CDC. Imagine thousands of people chanting “Matatapang, matatalino. Walang takot, kahit kanino.” In a basketball game. It was quite unusual, but the good kind. It was surreal.

I will never forget the game itself.

It was a tightly contested ball game from start to finish. As the better defensive squad, this favored Adamson. Grit and grind type of basketball is their strong suit, but UP kept in step with them.

Every basket was a crucial one, and every make was celebrated with vigor by the Fighting Maroons’ 6th man. The effort was well appreciated and displayed, may it be fist pumps in the air or a round of applause. Of course, the occasional expletives I’m not allowed to mention here were thrown around as well. It wouldn’t be a basketball without the fiery tongues of fans right?

At the end of the first half, Adamson led UP by a solitary point, 29-28.

The third quarter was a different story. UP unleashed a 26-14 quarter through the double barrel attack of Juan Gomez De Liano and Paul Desiderio with 9 points each. It looked like UP had it in the bag as they led 54-43 with 10 minutes left to play. The crowd was electric. It truly felt like, Atin ‘To.  Little did we know that we were in for a roller-coaster finish come the 4th quarter.

It was Adamson’s turn to step on the gas pedal as they pounded UP with a 28-19 fourth quarter blast anchored on Papi Sarr’s domination down low (Those two consecutive three-point play opportunities were peak Papi Sarr), Jerrick Ahanmissing being found, and the brilliance of the most hated man in Diliman, Sean Manganti. As Adamson was making their run, the sea of Maroon was visibly affected. There were still cheers and chants, but blended in was uncertainty and tension. Adamson was on the cusp of stealing this one as they made big baskets one after another to erect a four-point lead with a little over two minutes left in regulation.

A couple of plays down the line, UP found themselves tied with Adamson at 69-all with a few ticks left on the game clock. At that point, their main man, Paul Desiderio, called for an isolation play. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the right call. With the game clock at 10 seconds and the shot clock at 6 seconds, Paul made his attack and after a few dribbles, stepped back for a jumper. Swish. Nothing but net. UP was back on the driver’s seat, 71-69. The UP faithful went wild. The loud chants were back and the sea of maroon were already smelling victory. One more stop. That’s just all that was needed.

But in the ensuing play, UP’s tormentor Sean Manganti would hit 2 clutch free throws after a foul call that was questionable in the eyes of the UP faithful. 71-71, tied ball game.

Coach Bo called for time. The Fighting Maroons had 3.7 seconds left on the clock.  

During the timeout, Season 80’s magical moment hovered in the picture as the crowd started chanting “Atin ‘to. Atin ‘to.”, anticipating a big shot to seal the victory. Tension remained, but at the same time, there was hope.

The play started with Juan GDL as the inbounder. It was a misdirection play with a perfect screen set by Paul Desiderio against Papi Sarr. With an added ingredient of a mistimed jump from Simon Camacho, it was the perfect ATO play. Bright Akhuetie found himself all alone down low for the go-ahead basket as Juan GDL hits him with a gutsy yet perfect pass. Adamson had no timeouts left and all was left was a heave from half-court that was blocked. Game over. 73-71. UP forces a do-or-die against Adamson.

The reaction after Paul Desiderio’s shot was already loud but it was nothing compared to when the buzzer sounded. To say that the crowd was in a frenzy and in euphoria would be an understatement. There were hugs and high-fives shared not only among friends but also among strangers. “MVP” chants were thrown in for Mr. Brightside. “U-NI-BERSIDAD NG PILIPINAS” reverberated around the MOA Arena. It was a beautiful sight to see.

“Ganun pala ang Final Four game. Sarap ulit-ulitin.”

I will never forget this UP Final Four Experience. It may sound cliché and corny, but I will cherish it forever.

See you guys on Wednesday!

PS: I will also never forget about our planned Victory Party. Shout-out to my UP ACES family and friends! #UPFight