MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - It took two years, but the UP Fighting Maroons were finally reminded of what it's like to win.
The Maroons got into their rhythm late in the first half and clobbered the still winless Adamson Soaring Falcons, 77-64, to record their first win in the men's basketball tournament of UAAP Season 77 on Saturday, August 9 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Once UP saw gunners like JR Gallarza and Mikee Reyes get into a deadly shooting groove in the first half, it was quite evident their losing streak would stop at 27.
The Maroons' last won a game in Season 75 with a 63-48 drubbing of UE on Aug 19, 2012.
"They considered this the championship game so the intensity of the game, the hype, we were ready for this," said the 23-year-old Reyes. "We knew everyone was gonna be there - friends, supporters, even the doubters. That's funny because finally they see something in us that we can perform despite that 0-6 start."
Overturning a 13-7 first quarter deficit, the Maroons rallied back in the second frame right away as Gallarza put the Diliman-based cagers up 23-13 on a putback. He later hit one of his 4 triples to make it a 34-23 spread with 2:57 left in the first half.
At that point, UP's game was beginning to take solid shape as opposed to a scrambling Adamson.
Reyes hit another trey along with a pair of freebies with under two minutes left in the second canto, 39-25, before ending the half with a comfortable 42-32 advantage.
Then the third quarter happened.
Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
UP, which was steered by assistant coach Ramil Cruz in place of the still suspended head coach Rey Madrid, outscored Adamson, 24-14, with Reyes dropping 11 of his total career-high 28 points in that pivotal frame.
When Reyes made good on a lay-up 3 minutes into the third, stretching the lead to 49-32, the decent-sized UP crowd began making themselves heard.
When he hit a free throw, 50-32, the cheers grew louder.
In between timeouts, the UP faithful had leapt to their feet as the UP Pep Squad finally had a responsive crowd to cheer with.
Rarely big enough to make significant noise against the crowds of their opponents, Saturday's UP gallery was a sight to behold - especially for the players.
"To be honest I actually kind of felt a little disrespected and insulted with all the hype coming into this game when it was just two winless teams going at it, and it took that to bring out all of the UP crowd," Gallarza, 22, pointed out.
"I just wish that it would be like that, it would feel like at least an even match-up in terms of fan support. Because that definitely gave us a big boost and gave us the energy to sustain up until the fourth quarter."
On the opposing side, the Falcons look deflated. When Celedonio Trollano (24 points, 9 rebounds) and Jansen Rios (20 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, two steals) couldn't finish a fast break, Adamson coach Kenneth Duremdes buried his face in his hands as he sat on the bench. He could not believe their luck.
UP had Adamson right where they wanted them coming into the fourth armed with a 66-46 edge.
Before stepping onto the court for the final frame, the Maroons were jumping around in their huddle as team manager Dan Palami said, according to Reyes, that they would have incentives if they finished the job.
Kyles Lao (10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) had a fiery, excited look on his face. He and Gallarza egged the UP supporters on, marching over to their half of the arena and savoring the rare moment that they had this many people cheering them on.
There were still 10 minutes left to play, but the Maroons, finally playing fluidly and as a single unit, could already smell blood.
And so did their boisterous and ecstatic supporters.
But the Falcons would not simply roll over and die. Adamson rallied in the first 7 minutes of final canto.
From a 70-51 deficit, the Falcons went on a 9-0 run and sliced the lead down to a manageable 70-60, on an Axel Iñigo bucket with 3:01 to play.
This has been the UP Fighting Maroons script for the past two seasons: Fighting, keeping in step, or leading their opponents early before crumbling in the crucial stretches where it truly mattered.
The fans were restless. UP's were agitated; Adamson's were wild.
But with so much more motivation coming into this game (Reyes said Senator Sonny Angara donated new shoes and a flat screen TV to the team so they can view games), UP would have enough fuel to alter their ending for the better.
"We wanted to win this game for a lot of people," Reyes said.
Gallarza, who had a career-high 24 markers and 6 boards, doused water on the Adamson inferno with a cold-blooded triple with 1:41 to play, pushing the lead back up to 73-60.
Adamson would still come to within 73-64 after a Trollano long bomb with 45.5 ticks to go.
But as Lao swished in his charities for a 75-64 spread with 37.3 seconds left, UP knew they were out of harm's way. And their fans were already chanting "Bonfire! Bonfire!" - something the school and the team were promised if they came away with this victory.
"They finally told us to win," Gallarza, playing on his third year, shared what their team managers had told the team at dinner last Thursday. "A lot of the times it's just play hard or do your best. Now we have to win. There was a sense of urgency."
This win only gave UP a 1-6 slate, and moved them up a notch in the standings at 7th place. But finally tasting victory after going through a grueling summer program, enduring Madrid's two-game suspension, and waiting for such a long time for a win - 720 days to be exact - this triumph means everything.
"This is my first UAAP win since 2009," the 4th year Reyes remarked. "It's a big thing for me, as pathetic as it sounds. Masarap, masarap manalo." (It feels good to win.)
UP (77): Reyes 28, Gallarza 24, Lao 10, Juruena 4, Asilum 4, Gingerich 2, Moralde 2, Lim 2, Amar 1, Vito 0, Harris 0.
Adamson (64): Trollano 24, Rios 20, Monteclaro 5, Nalos 4, Villanueva 3, Iñigo 3, Ochea 2, Baytan 2, Polican 1, Barrera 0, Garcia 0, Aquino 0, Pedrosa 0.
Quarter scores: 19-13, 42-32, 66-46, 77-64.