UP Fighting Maroons

LOOKBACK: How a locker room session sparked UP’s run

Naveen Ganglani
In a recent Zoom session, the UP Maroons recall how one emotional halftime locker room episode proved to be the turning point of their historic campaign

The eve of October 21, 2018 is marked as an important date in the sports lore of the University of the Philippines. 

Let’s turn back the clock: The Fighting Maroons were battling and losing to the University of the East, which was a surprise given the disparity in expectations, but more importantly, the talent between both UAAP varsities.

At halftime, the score marked 44-41, in favor of the Red Warriors. They were no pushovers – not with a super-scorer like Alvin Pasaol – but UE entered the game at 1-7 and carrying a three-game losing streak, while UP – a team with ambitious hopes – stood at 3-5, and in danger of elimination. 

A loss would end their dreams. 

But to one man, it would also mean the end to something even more important. 

UP coach Bo Perasol was frustrated as he marched to his team’s locker room at the Filoil Arena in San Juan. 

What he had to say remains clear as day to the young men who consider him a father figure. 

“Coach Bo said…. ‘If we lose this game, I’m resigning!’”

That was recalled by Gelo Vito, one of Perasol’s seniors in Season 81, during the recent Zoomustahan reunion of the 2018 Fighting Maroons on Facebook. 

“Coach Bo really got mad and I think that was the turning point… wake-up call for all of us,” added Jarrell Lim, who was also a graduating player.

Context is important in this situation. 

Following years of futility – highlighted by a criticized bonfire celebration for a single victory in 2014 – UP’s basketball program finally turned the right corner. 

The team improved each succeeding year by building steady management, gathering needed sponsorships, attaining quality recruits, and finding an invested head coach, to the point that breaking the university’s 21-year Final Four drought seemed realistic 4 years after sparks flew up to the sky at the Sunken Garden. 

But it was also far from certain.

The Fighting Maroons struggled in the first act of their campaign, punctuated by a humiliating loss to their future rivals, the Growling Tigers of UST, where assistant coach Ricky Dandan was heard scolding the boys during a timeout, “Puro kayo pa-pogi! (You all just wanted to look good!)”

Takot kami kay coach Ricky! (We were scared of coach Ricky!)” recalled Diego Dario, who was in his last year as a student-athlete. 

As the boys laughed while reminiscing, they hinted Dandan might have been referring to then standout sophomore Juan Gomez de Liaño, who admitted: “We were too relaxed.”

UP opened its second round with a blowout defeat against defending champion Ateneo, putting what was once the team’s realistic chance to make the Final Four in peril. 

So the days leading up to the Maroons’ critical duel against the Warriors, the seniors gathered for an urgent regrouping session, including then leading man, Paul Desiderio. 

“We can’t let this happen. Ito yung last year namin (It was our last year),” said Dario, adding that the players made suggestions to the coaching staff that might help the team. 

Those adjustments, however, were nowhere to be found as UP barely kept pace with UE after 20 minutes of game time. 

That forced Perasol to ask an important question.

“Am I the one who’s going to be the right person to lead them?”

“Am I getting into their hearts and into their minds? If we’re going to lose that game, I was 100% sure I wasn’t doing my job, so there was no point in staying,” he said during the online reunion.

Crossroads

Perasol’s homecoming with UP, where he was a Fighting Maroon in the early ‘90s, was deepened by the bond he formed with his players, but in helping them accomplish their task, he thought he’d come up short. 

His boys didn’t think so. In fact, hearing what he had to say was just what they needed to wake up.

Wala na akong inisip,” remembered Desiderio, the captain, “kung hindi manalo (I wasn’t thinking of anything else but to win).”

UP exited its locker room a unified squad. The chemistry of the guys improved as the ball was shared so that everyone could contribute. Those who didn’t score focused on the little things – like defense and hustle plays – so that the season could stay alive. 

Desiderio made plays for teammates. Dario stepped up. Gomez de Liaño had a triple-double. Bright Akhuetie, the MVP, didn’t have to ask for the ball. The vets, led by Pio Longa, cheered and roared from the bench.

The final tally read 94-81, UP. 

“That was the time we all really came together as teammates,” said Lim. 

That momentum wouldn’t be short-lived as the boys then went on to win 3 of their next 4 games, setting up a critical game against La Salle. The stakes were simple: win and UP would enter the Final Four. 

When asked what flipped the team’s fate, Perasol owed it to them facing an important crossroad in their journey. 

“Are we going to sacrifice something for a better result, for a greater good?”

That sacrifice started with Desiderio, who came to terms that he no longer had to have the most shots – especially with Gomez de Liaño and Akhuetie playing at a Mythical Team level. 

Did the trio have heart-to-heart sessions?

Not really, at first joked Gomez de Liaño , to which Akhuetie countered: 

“Dude! Every day!”

Gomez de Liaño also accepted a bench role after being in the starting unit, which produced satisfying results, thanks in no small part to the chemistry he shared with his brother, Javi, who debuted a new hairdo during the reunion. 

“I was just willing to adjust whatever role was given to me by coach [Bo]. All I wanted to do was help the team win games,” Juan said. 

The night before the game against La Salle, Desiderio set up a dinner for the team at Ciano, an establishment owned by members of Nowhere To Go But UP. It was then when Desiderio first found assurance the Maroons were going to win.

Makikita mo sa mukha nila na walang pressure (You can see in their faces that there was no pressure).”

He was right. UP blew out La Salle, then went on to upset Adamson in the Final Four after two epic encounters, which were also discussed by the boys during the reunion.

“They all accepted that there’s a need for them to sacrifice,” Perasol said. 

He was right. – Rappler.com