It was during the break before Season 79 when Coach Franz Pumaren signed on to lead Adamson, a school coming off back to back last place finishes. He took the helm while giving a promise: A championship in three years time.
Forgive me and plenty of other UAAP fans for being extremely skeptical upon first hearing this. Adamson is a school with what is at this point, a 41-year title drought, the longest of any team in the league. They have also never won a single playoff game in the Final Four era, and have the second worst winning percentage of the last 18 years.
Even after the Falcons racked up back to back Final Four appearances, and gave the Ben Mbala-led La Salle Green Archers all that they could handle, that 2015 prediction from Pumaren still felt extremely improbable. That was all because another team with a bird moniker was supposed to crush the competition and go undefeated this season.
That was, until Adamson beat that team on opening weekend of this year, which marked the third season since Pumaren’s bold prediction.
It was a convincing introduction to Season 81, one that saw Jerrick Ahanmisi play with the aggressiveness of a true star that the team was hoping he’d blossom into. The rest of the team was also present to support their star guard, picking up the slack for what would become a rare weak outing for Ahanmisi’s partner in crime, Sean Manganti.
But most importantly, the team gave off the aura and confidence of a winner. Pumaren seemed to have finally been able to fully instill into his players the emotional and mental toughness needed from a champion squad. They won their first 5 games, a team-record for consecutive wins to start a season. The Adamson fans recognized this could be a special season, and they came to the arena in droves.
They looked unscathed by a couple of midseason losses. They would bounce back easily, always keeping the same trajectory towards the UAAP Finals until they finally secured a top-two seed and a twice-to-beat advantage for just the second time in the Final Four era.
It felt like it was Adamson’s time to finally have their Cinderella season.
However, elsewhere, UP began building up a head of steam as they battled for a spot in the Final Four. The Maroons won five of their last six games of the Elimination Rounds (all by double-digits), and locked up a spot in the top four for the first time since 1997. UP had been marred with futility over the entirety of this century, and the team and its gargantuan following finally barged into the Final Four.
Adamson suddenly wasn’t the only team hoping to be Season 81’s darling protagonist. There were now two Cindrellas fighting for a single glass slipper, both equally deserving of a trip to the championship round that, regardless of the outcome, would be historic.
UP threw the first punch, surviving Game 1 after a beautiful inbound play led to a game winner from Bright Akhuetie. That set up a sudden death match for the ages, but with UP riding tons of momentum, the Falcons had their backs against the wall.
This was the time for Adamson to show just how much they’ve grown in the last three years. This was the time to see just how real of culture difference was instilled by Franz Pumaren.
Game 2 started off rough for the Falcons, who fell behind by double-digits in the first quarter, and by as much as 16 in the second period. But with each deficit they faced, they hit back, eventually managing to claw to a standstill with UP at the end of regulation.
But despite going ahead by 6 points at the halfway mark of the overtime period, Adamson found themselves down two with six seconds left. Jerom Lastimosa receive the ball off a hand-off, curled off a screen towards the top of the arc, squared his feet just outside the three-point line, and launched.
Everything Adamson had worked on for the last three seasons hinged on that shot.
Just like that, Pumaren’s promise was broken. Just like that, Adamson no longer fit the glass slipper which seemed to have their name on it since the season began. Just like that, Adamson had to settle for the role of step sister to UP’s unprecedented Cinderella run to the UAAP Finals.
But when looking back at the Game 2 loss, the remnants of a different Adamson team still shine through. Not a single time did it feel like Adamson was out of the game, even when they trailed big in the first half. Ahanmisi － often cricitized for being Ahanmissing in the clutch － was crucial in keeping the team in the game, and had a big shot late in the fourth to keep them alive. Unsung heroes Simon Camacho and Lastimosa stepped up under the brighter lights of the Final Four. Papi Sarr arguably outplayed the MVP for the second game in a row.
Adamson played their hearts out in one of the greatest basketball games ever played. There was no quit, no backing down and no semblance of choke artistry. UP was just meant to have their day under the sun.
So while this season may have not end the way Adamson wanted to, it will forever be etched into the memory of all Adamson fans when they eventually make it to the top. Because Adamson will have another shot at glory. They’ll eventually break the Final Four curse and fit a glass slipper that’s truly meant for them. And when that moment comes, they’ll look back at Season 81 and say that this was the year that made them believe it was possible.