For the UP Maroons to be great, they must remember what makes them special

MANILA, Philippines – Sometimes, basketball isn't sport. It's art. What makes the game so special is how the 10 human beings on the court manifest their personalities with the use of a ball and two rings. It all comes together as one, the blueprint for a classic.

When the final buzzer rang around the Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday, September 15, it looked like the UP Fighting Maroons and Adamson Falcons had just gone to war. Reminiscent of their unforgettable battles from only 10 months before, what's become the UAAP's most compelling rivalry added another riveting chapter to its growing collection of memories.

Bodies were on the floor, as Maroons and Falcons lay in exhaustion and pain. In the crowd, feelings of excitement and anxiety increased to the extremes. UAAP Season 82 has already provided more down-to-the-wire, edge-of-your-seat entertainment than we could ask for, and here was the best entry to date.

To UP, a win was a statement. To Adamson, a win was payback.

"Parang may nabuong rivalry between UP and Adamson." (It looks like there's a brewing rivalry between UP and Adamson.)

Renan Dalisay laughed in between taking sips of orange juice at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf right across the Mall of Asia Arena after the game. In 2014, this man and other UP alumni formed a group dedicated to fund the University of the Philippines men's basketball program, which was falling into peril. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine their journey would reach its current magnitude, and now here they are, witnessing the crowd-darling Maroons venture for a title the UP community has been starving for.

"The biggest challenge for this team is really how to gel."

"Today, we saw a glimpse of how they can work together."

The debut of Kobe Paras was one of the UAAP's most anticipated storylines in 2019. The anticipation climbed when he missed UP's first two games – an escape of FEU and blowout to UST – because of a right ankle sprain. On Sunday, Paras finally played in the same league his father did decades before him, and for the university whose last championship came courtesy of his old man in 1986.

Paras attacked the rim with reckless abandon, displaying the outstanding athleticism that once made him a Division I recruit for UCLA. He also made early miscalculated mistakes, helping lead to the Maroons' 41-25 hole at the half against Franz Pumaren's always-feisty troops. Kobe finished with 20 points and 6 rebounds in 41 grueling minutes, but only in the second half did he showcase how deep his impact could be.

In the first two quarters, the second-generation star played like someone who felt like he had something to prove. Everyone already knew he was as talented as the best of the UAAP, but what they wanted to know was how well he would mesh with a team who had other stars like him, because if they make it work, the possibilities for the UP Maroons are endless. If they don't, there will be disappointment.

On the most important play of the game, that very question was tested. Paras drove the ball to the rim and braced for collision against Adamson's interior protector, Lenda Douanga. With all 10 Soaring Falcon eyes watching his every move, Kobe passed the ball to an open Javi Gomez de Liaño, whose only points were the game's most critical.

Nothing but net. Tied at 73. Overtime.

It was the right play for the right team whose best shot at winning a UAAP championship is through remembering what made them a contender to begin with.

It's not because they have the most talent.

It's because of the meaning behind UP Fight.

"Kobe, with all these things we read about him – the bashing, the haters – he's actually emerging to be a leader all throughout the team," said Dalisay.

When Paras found out he was too injured to play in UP's season debut, the man with a whole future ahead of him was teary-eyed. Rather than sulking, he was ready to provide any type of help. "He was picking up the ball and the towels for the players. He's pulling the team together."

The Maroons were not happy with how their season was unfolding after the loss to UST. The debut of Paras was imminent, with excitement increasing when he started practicing through contact, but the team still had internal issues to resolve.

"'Noah [Webb], if you want to talk to the team na kayo-kayo lang (by yourselves), no coaches, then just tell me,'" Dalisay told UP's team captain.

The Maroons had a players-only meeting in one of their rooms at the new UP gym. By the conclusion of it, the main consensus was to stick as a unit, especially in the most difficult of situations. That same night, the Maroons had dinner at Ciano in Quezon City, where the mood became relaxed, as they did their part in fighting for the farmers of the Philippines.

Thanks Ricci Rivero for your support to buy local rice. #buylocalRice #saveourFarmers #MagsasakaMahalaga #RiceUP — Renan Dalisay (@renandalisay) September 11, 2019


"They already knew what to do."

Juan Gomez de Liaño, the breakout star of Season 81, struggled in their first two games as he recovered from knee and ankle issues in the offseason. With his team down in the third and in desperate need of a spark, he scored 10 straight points to announce his much-awaited arrival for Season 82. Three-pointers, sneaky steals, acrobatic lay-ups, and step-back beauties, Juan was back and proved that when in doubt, the best bet is with the ball in his hands.

"He was giving everything. I think hearing the UP crowd again, the UP community, that helps the mental challenge he's undergoing," said Dalisay.

Rivero, who looked so out of place in UP's system that he spent most of the first half in the bench, vindicated himself with 3 crucial baskets in the final period. Guys like James Spencer and David Murrell did the unnoticed things that are as important as scoring the basketball, like pressuring Adamson's ball-handlers and forcing them to game-changing turnovers.

Valandre Chauca dominated for Adamson in the first half, but was limited for the remainder of the game against the duo's stingy defense.

Jerrick Ahanmisi made mistakes that will not go in his collegiate highlight reel, opening the door for UP to break the Falcons' hearts again.

Adamson versus UP has the chance to join the league's long history of greatest rivalries. More than the raw emotion and stubborn relentlessness these two teams play with when they see each other across the floor, it's their intertwined rise to the top of college basketball which makes every matchup must-see TV.

From 2014 to 2015, both were cellar dwellers of the league. When UP ended its nearly two-year losing streak and had a bonfire, it came courtesy of a win against the Falcons. When the Maroons hired a culture-changing coach in Bo Perasol, Adamson did the same with Franz Pumaren. Both programs worked their way up from UAAP purgatory simultaneously, and played like squads unwilling to return to the bottom.

In the Final Four last season, Adamson had the twice-to-beat advantage, but University of the Philippines snatched their tickets to the final dance. They did it powered by the UP crowd, who finally saw the Fighting Maroon spirit in their boys once again on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

With 8:22 left in the 4th quarter and both teams only separated by a point, this year's UPMBT received their first major test. Gone are Paul Desiderio, Gelo Vito, Diego Dario, and Jarrell Lim, the veterans from Season 81 who sacrificed individual accomplishments for #16Strong to prosper. UP outlasted Adamson once again because they put their faith not in individual skill, but rather through will, effort, and teamwork.

That's why despite Pumaren's always-deadly system, a breakout game for Adamson's budding star AP Manlapaz, and multiple scrambles for a basketball that had bodies physically unable to continue the fight, Bright Akhuetie was at the free throw line, with the chance to bring another victory home to Dilliman, and heartache to the Adamson faithful.

Both went in. The MVP did his thing. (READ: Blazing 3rd quarter run propels UP to OT win over Adamson)

"It just showed they really wanted to win tonight."

UP won because true to its word, it stuck with each other while staring down the barrel of an 18-point point deficit.

UP won because its superstars fought the temptation to become heroes, and instead shared the spotlight with their brothers.

UP won because it gave its sleeping giant a reason to wake up, which propelled it to the finish line.

"That is what the UP Fight is all about," Dalisay said.

He's right.

Now the question is, how long does it last? –