Moments of the Decade: UP returns to the Final Four

The final buzzer is nearing for 2019 and with that, the decade is coming to a close as well. Before the 2010s turns over into the 2020s, take a look back at the best basketball moments of the decade for the SLAM PH Team.

As a teenager, the UP Fighting Maroons was the butt of all UAAP Basketball jokes. Growing up, people around me laughed at their futility, year after year. I don’t need to remind you everything about the Fighting Maroons because their past is known far and wide. Everyone knows about the winless seasons, the almost-won-but-not-games, the “blue-chip” recruits, the new promising coach that was put in year-after-year. You know about all that.

It all becomes different when you step foot on campus. When I became I UP student, there was no question that I was going to cheer for the Fighting Maroons no matter what. I mean, as a basketball-loving man, how could I not cheer for my school? That meant taking the brunt of all the jokes thrown towards the team. That meant enduring all the failures of the team and finding reasons to continue cheering for them every season.

Every UP fan, student, or alumni was aware of the history of the Fighting Maroons since 1986. But it’s so much different when you were actually part of those guys who went to battle and remember the scenes inside the locker rooms.

As the Maroons’ student manager in senior year of college, it was a privilege to be able to be in that position. But at the same time, some might also think that it was a burden, simply because 99% of the time you knew your team was walking onto the floor to be outgunned, outran, and outplayed by every other team in the league.

Fourteen straight losses is not something anyone, would want to experience. Especially up close. That I can attest to. Of those fourteen games I was part of, UP actually had a chance to win only two – both times the game got away from them in the final minute. I was part of the third winless season in the past ten years.

That kind of pain is something you’ll always remember because it not only stung. It sucked, and quite frankly, exhausted me as a basketball fan.

That’s why all of the low moments – every single bit of it – was all so worth it on November 14, 2018.

Season 81 was a whirlwind of a ride already. The Fighting Maroons surpassed all expectations by getting the most wins in fourteen years. What sounded better though was the fact that UP was actually just 40 minutes away from a playoff berth. All they had to do was score more than their opponent.

“How hard could it be after all they’ve shown all season?”

And then all the memories of those heartbreaks, defeats, and failures came flashing back in an instant. It dawned that they were up against the reigning finalists, the La Salle Green Archers.

Aljun Melecio was hot to start, and he was joined by Kib Montalbo and Taane Samuel. They made shots, pushed the pace, and played well defensively to start. A loss would make UP await the winner of the FEU-Adamson tilt before knowing if they will actually make the Final Four.

Then Juan Gomez De Liaño happened. And so did Paul Desiderio. And Bright Akhuetie. Every single guy on the team came together to make the 21-year dream reality. Juan hit three beautiful long-bombs. Paul hit two of his own from the same spot in the corner. Jaydee Tungcab added a step-back three. Javi also put in some timely baskets of his own as the main sixth man.

There was truly something special about that team. They were selfless, united, and resilient. Almost each offensive sequence went-like this: pass-pass-pass-drive-pass-extra pass-wide-open-three. Splash. The way they shared that rock, whipped it around, and let it fly while that bench roared in support. It was Spurs-ian. It was Warriors-esque. At that moment, they were truly a team.

As seconds wound down and the team slowly realized that they fulfilled their Final Four dream. Tears flowed. Hugs were given recklessly by everyone wearing maroon. UP cheers filled more than half the MOA Arena. At that moment and instant, all the pain dissolved. Taking its place was utter joy.

At that moment, all the problems of the past – the meager allowances, days without food allocations, and the directionless practices – became memories, not realities. They they all served as the sweetener to that one, winning moment for the entire UP community.

The last remnants of the futile seasons of the past – Coach Ricky Dandan, assistants Mark Dandan, Moriah Gingerich and Kenneth Raval, trainer Manu Hoque, players Paul, Gelo Vito, Jarrell Lim, Diego Dario – hugged and jumped and cheered for joy.

I know for a fact they remember the struggle. Because up to this day I still do. That moment meant so much to me, what more to them? The difference five years makes. That’s why that image of them ending the curse will forever be etched in my memory.

For all of Bo Perasol’s flaws and faults, people don’t give him enough credit for being the one to bring back this program to relevance. All his efforts day in and day out, the financial resources he spent on his own, to recruiting sponsors year after year by himself – all of which aren’t part of the job description of a collegiate head coach – paid off in more ways than one.

At that point that was all they wished for. But a few days laster, the team went on to win two more down-the-wire games and advance to the school’s first Finals appearance in 32 years. But that was just icing on the cake.

UP’s run in Season 81 was something I never thought I’d see in this lifetime. That’s why this year’s early exit – subpar for everyone’s expectations – shouldn’t be something people lambast. This team, this school has been through far worse. Season 82 was much, much more than a blessing already from the basketball heavens.

The way they barged through the playoffs over DLSU and the spectacular victories over Adamson in 2018 should be memories all UP fans must remember as inspiration during the good times, and motivation during the bad. UP knows what it took them to climb out of the grave. Here’s to hoping they never forget the lessons and the journey that brought them here today.

From the Archives: Confessions of a UP Fan

Moments of the Decade

Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals

Kiefer Ravena’s 2017 SEA Games dagger

Isaac Go’s clutch three in the Season 80 Finals

Ginebra ends their championship drought

Ryan Buenafe’s Three-Peat clinching shot

The Decision

Gilas breaks the Korean Curse