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MANILA, Philippines – Before University of the Philippines goes for the kill against De La Salle University in Game 2 of the UAAP finals on Sunday, December 3, high-flying Fighting Maroons freshman Francis Lopez will be honored as the league’s Rookie of the Year in front of what’s expected to be a boisterous crowd at the Araneta Coliseum.
Lopez did not top all rookies in statistical points following the elimination round, but due to two unsportsmanlike fouls and a consequential suspension for University of the East’s Precious Momowei, the award will be given to college basketball’s “LeBron” for him to add to his mantle.
While the numbers favor Momowei – who had a terrific first go-round with UE and will be a cornerstone for that program for years to come – it doesn’t take away from the budding excellence Lopez continuously displays on the basketball court.
His unique blend of skill, IQ, athleticism, composure, and physicality were highlighted when UP drew first blood against De La Salle in the finals opener. Lopez finished with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 2-of-5 from downtown, 11 rebounds, and a +18 in only 23 and a half minutes.
The rookie played like a seasoned veteran in his first ever UAAP finals performance, a trait not so common even among other greats of the game.
“My teammates. They were there for me always,” Lopez said after the Game 1 win.
“They always talk to me, especially the coaches. They talked about what’s going to happen because they’ve been there. This is my first time coming in the finals in the UAAP. I know there are big crowds and everything like that, but I want to thank them for this win and hopefully we will get our mindset right for the next game and finish the season.”
The eye test also displayed how impactful he was in multiple facets that were integral to winning that first battle between Maroons and Archers.
Lopez fought off La Salle’s frontcourt towers Kevin Quiambao, Mike Phillips, Bright Nwankwo, and Raven Cortez on the boards, contributing to the Fighting Maroons’ 55-45 rebounding advantage despite foul trouble for big man Malick Diouf.
That prevented the Archers from controlling the pace of the contest and steered it more towards the speed with which the Fighting Maroons excel in.
“It’s the finals, so we’ve got to fight hard on the boards,” Lopez said. “They got big guys as well but I think we were hungrier than them. I’m glad we got this one and we’re going to focus on the next one.”
He pushed the pace in transition, which is an advantage at his size and position, because it allowed UP’s guards to run ahead and get into early offensive actions and sets with more time left on the shot clock. The Fighting Maroons outscored the Green Archers in fastbreaks by 6 and had a 24-2 points off turnovers edge. Their half court offensive tempo was stellar.
Lopez made DLSU pay when they gave him too much space to shoot and a runway to the rim. He scored 9 of his 15 in the third period – mostly coming in the early minutes – when UP extended a manageable 12-point halftime lead to an insurmountable avalanche that buried La Salle before the Green Archers knew they were hit by a knockout haymaker.
This was a version of Lopez who was both confident in his game and comfortable in his skin, a product of impressive basketball development by University of the Philippines’ coaching staff and his journey of self-discovery aided by a management team who made it their priority to “care” for Lopez once he joined their family.
“The best way to describe this young man is he was really just waiting for the right break, the right opportunity, the right setup, circumstance. He was waiting for that,” shared Patrick Gregorio, one of the UPMBT program’s supporters.
In an exclusive interview with Rappler, Gregorio shared that Lopez always had the “desire” to be the player he has now blossomed into, but first needed the right “opportunity” to manifest it into existence.
A non-basketball example of that happened in the offseason when Lopez started suiting up for State U.
“A few months after we got him and he started games in the preseason, I asked him, ‘Why do you look down? Why do you look at the floor? Why do you not look at the crowd and smile back at the UP fans?’” Gregorio recalled.
“I remember his reply: ‘Nahihiya po ako (I feel shy).’ I told him, ‘No, hindi ka dapat mahiya (You shouldn’t feel shy). Because it would be very nice and sweet and a great gesture if you simply smile back at them.’”
From an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to understand why Lopez, who is reserved by nature, was hesitant to show his personality on the court.
Since the announcement of his decision to move to UP from Ateneo, he’s been on the receiving end of all types of criticism, sometimes veering on the edge of unwarranted violence from those who were hurt by his choice and unnecessarily took out their anger on the young adult finding his way in the world.
As he waited for his shot at UAAP competition, certainty on his eligibility remained unclear.
“Will I be able to play?” was the question that gnawed at him, according to Gregorio. “For years, he was asking that. When he was given the go-signal to play, it was ‘Will I be able to blend well, get the playing time, and contribute to this team?’ Look at him now: he’s blossoming so well.”
Following an early season victory against National University, Lopez made his first appearance in the post-game press conference table at The Big Dome. While waiting for UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde to arrive, his eyes stared downwards as he shifted uncomfortably, mumbling sentiments of discomfort under his breath.
A few weeks later and the Lopez at the games seems like a different person. The important qualities that have made him the human and player he is have remained steadfast, but the meekness has been replaced by an unassuming swagger that befits his electric stardom as a hooper.
Gone are the days where he would shy away from looking at the UP crowd that continues to welcome him with open arms, replaced by someone unafraid of flashing his wide smile after delivering a thunderous dunk or putting a finger to his nose following a big win.
“There was no Francis outside of the basketball court. There is now a Francis outside of the basketball court. That is the difference,” said Gregorio. “Francis did not reform. There’s no such thing. He transformed. Iba yung nagbago sa nag-blossom (Changing is different from blossoming).”
What’s blossomed has worked to UP’s advantage, as they now stand within one game of making history. After a 36-year championship drought, the Fighting Maroons have the opportunity to win two UAAP championships in three seasons by defeating Ateneo and La Salle, arguably the most successful programs of the Final Four era.
And if this does materialize, chances are Lopez will play a big part in making it happen.
“We’ve been practicing for so long. We’re glad we got the outcome we want,” he stated. “But like I said before, our mission is to get two wins.” – Rappler.com