Hurting, U.P.? Good, it means you’ve made it
MANILA, Philippines – Do you ever contemplate on what makes you feel the most alive? It’s funny, isn’t it, that there are a number of people beyond our imaginations living in the same planet that we do, and each one has different preferences to give them the best type of satisfaction.
On Wednesday, December 5, inside a Smart Araneta Coliseum that hosted close to 24,000 people who were seeking their own rush, a basketball game took place. But it was more than just a game. It was a battle between two teams who are used to being on the opposite ends of the totem pole: Ateneo, the always favored defending champion with the tradition of winning; and UP, the lovable underdog who was in a once-in-a-lifetime type of ride.
In Game 1, the experienced squad gave the new guys a lesson in championship basketball. In Game 2, the even more ruthless side of Ateneo arrived, led by a man who was on a mission for his own personal vindication. UP had the first shot of the game with a Paul Desiderio triple, but the next two events – Jun Manzo hurting his ankle and Thirdy Ravena converting on offense – became symbolism for the remainder of the game.
The battle actually started before tip-off at the Big Dome that was home to another historic day of college basketball. “ONE BIG FIGHT!” screamed the sea of blue, “UP FIGHT!” responded those in maroon. Fans were getting irritated inside the cramped-up coliseum, as many pushed and elbowed to get a peek at whether or not University of the Philippines could pull off another impossible feat.
UP didn’t fall too far behind early, similar to the first 3 periods in Game 1. The difference was this time, a clear-headed Angelo Kouame put his dominant imprint on the game immediately. Ravena and Raffy Verano provided firepower on offense, and by the end of the quarter, the Blue Eagles were already ahead by 12.
In the opening moments of the 2nd quarter, UP trimmed the lead down to 5, but Ateneo brought it back up to 9. The Maroons then cut it back down to single digit, but the Blue Eagles were unwilling to let their feisty opponents go on a prolonged rally that could shift the tide of the ball game. Another few defensive stops, a Kouame putback, a Ravena three, and suddenly, the lead was back up high.
For the first time since UP went on their winning streak in November, it felt like the magic that had been carrying this team was suddenly sucked out. All the signs were there: Paul Desiderio, the team captain writing his final chapter, was hesitant to attack the Ateneo D with Kouame providing defense similar to The Great Wall. Many of the Maroons’ jumpers went in and out, while uncharacteristic turnovers were made. Even the pre-game delay involving Bright Akhuetie’s knee brace wasn’t in script with how fate has treated UP the past month.
On the other side, Kouame was throwing down slam dunks and flapping his long arms like an Eagle. The Ateneo crowd started chants of “Atin ‘to!” which was obviously derived from somewhere else. The Blue Eagles kept firing three-pointers, while scoring as well on easy baskets thanks to their crisp and consistent system.
In certain moments, it felt like defeat was inevitable for the Maroons. For a UP fan, it must have felt demoralizing.
The thing about experiencing the kind of run UP did to get to the finals involves one of the most dangerous feelings in the world:
Hope is what led Maroons fans to cheer their hearts out in every UP game this season, inspiring their boys all the way to a place the school hasn’t been in for 32 years. Hope is that feeling everyone from University of the Philippines had inside them before the finals even if they knew the Blue Eagles were a superior opponent, as they wondered why another miracle couldn’t take place?
For Ateneo to mercilessly shut the door on any UP comeback was a burden for the side in Maroon, yet they never wavered. “U-NIBERSIDAD-NG-PILIPINAS” was sung over and over again, along with shouts of “Atin ‘to!” as Desiderio brought the physicality to Kouame. “Don’t give up!” screamed a UP fan from the lower boxes. It didn’t matter if their team was down 4 or 18, the UP crowd remained the same.
And so did their team. Sure, Ateneo kept throwing haymakers, but Rocky Balboa once said, “it ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Every time the Maroons suffered a potential knockout blow from the defending champs, they fought back. Akhuetie did not back down from the taller and bigger Kouame. Desiderio dove to the floor and attacked the rim like his life depended on it. Juan Gomez De Liaño, this team’s superstar, put on a show to remember. Javi Gomez De Liaño was as reliable as ever.
Was it enough?
No. Unfortunately, the Blue Eagles were too fast, too experienced, and too good. UP’s time is coming, but Ateneo’s time is now.
In so many ways, this year’s Fighting Maroons squad reminds us so much of these same Blue Eagles in 2016, when younger versions of Ravena, Verano, The Nietos, and company lost to an older Green Archers team. Back then, Jeron Teng was Thirdy now, closing out the series in stupendous fashion that will go down in the history books. Ben Mbala was Kouame, the hulking MVP-level recruit who towered over everyone with sheer physicality.
Ateneo did their dues, and it didn’t take long for them to get payback at La Salle the year after. The defeat, as heartbreaking as it was, was a mandatory lesson for the Blue Eagles before taking that next step and standing at the peak of the podium. UP has the blueprint to follow the same path with an on-the-rise star, the league MVP, and incoming recruits whose talents jump off the page.
But will they?
That’s the question that we’ll need to wait 12 months for the answer.
UP has this to worry about, though: Desiderio was a captain in all words and form. Sure, he took the big shots when it mattered most, but, in the process, also learned to be more selfless on the court while doing the little things: like trusting his teammates can step up at crucial moments. He started the movement of “16 Strong,” while personifying everything the UP Fighting Maroons stand for: an underdog who never gives up and wants to be part of something bigger than just himself.
A team always follows the example of its leader. Desiderio was as great a leader as Bo Perasol could ask for. With him gone, who takes his place? Who’s willing to make the sacrifices for the betterment of the team? Will all 16 guys unite once again, or will increased ego from a rare successful season spark potential issues? UP’s magical run in Season 81 was unforgettable, but it won’t be easily duplicated. Now that they’re where they aspired to be, the Maroons cannot forget about what got them there:
You know who won’t forget? The loyal fans. Those who screamed their hearts out every single game. Those who held hands in prayer for a UP victory. Those who hugged and cried and celebrated to making history. Those who no matter the second in a Fighting Maroons game, will not be threatened by an opponent, because like the boys who proudly wear the name of the school on their chests, they, too, have been underdogs who don’t know how to quit.
“They are proud of you,” an emotional Perasol told his UP boys after the game, referring to the Isko crowd. It was a beautiful image – the mentor comforting his pupils by asking them to find honor in the thousands who were with them until the painful end.
Right now, many of them are also devastated. To get that far, and lose in that way, it’s not easy to get over. Not when you’ve dedicated one of the things in life that make you feel alive to your beloved team.
And you know what, UP fans? Don’t get over it.
Don’t get over having the memory of watching another team celebrate a championship while you were left speechless because your heart was just broken.
Don’t get over choosing your heart over your mind into believing – and hoping – that UP could pull of one of the greatest upsets to ever happen.
Don’t forget that feeling of singing UP Naming Mahal with beaming pride as you fight back tears, but also wonder how much longer you’ll have to wait.
Because, UP, one day, it will be you who everyone watches celebrate a championship in envy. It will be you who watches the confetti drop from the heavens as you put on championship shirts. And when that time comes, all the agony you feel now will be worth it. There will also be more years of painful losses and sleepless nights, but that’s part of the ride of being where you’ve wanted to be for so long:
Among the elite.
Guess what? Nothing will ever make you feel more alive.
Congrats, UP. You made it. – Rappler.com