UP’s Time is Now

Ateneo na ‘to.

Only a few minutes into UP’s gutsy win over the Adamson Falcons, people were already counting out the UP Fighting Maroons in the UAAP Finals. Who can blame them? The Ateneo Blue Eagles are definitely the stronger, deeper, more polished team between the two.

Ateneo might think they don’t need to worry, and they have all the reasons not to. They’re even stronger now than they were last year when they won the championship. In a sea of college ballers, the Blue Eagles have already shown that they can keep up with professional basketball players from overseas after that strong Jones Cup stint earlier this year. This team is already on a league of its own.

On top of that, Ateneo has been solid this UAAP season. They’ve beaten UP comfortably twice this year. They’re on the middle of an eight-game winning streak, manhandling opponents by sizeable margins.

We can talk about these all day long and the Ateneans still won’t run out of reasons not to worry about UP. The point is, there’s no arguing that Ateneo is the best team in the league today. Whether analytically or historically, the Blue Eagles are heavily favored to repeat this year. And in this series, the Fighting Maroons are the clear cut underdogs, the David against Ateneo’s Goliath-like presence in the UAAP.

But to count UP out? Big mistake.

Keep all your mainstream predictions to yourself. The Fighting Maroons are not here to be just some ceremonial dance partner before the crown is handed out to Ateneo. No one should ever think that UP waited for 32 long years only to be contented on a finals appearance. They’re here to win.

Yes, this isn’t some scripted Hollywood movie that will see UP go bonkers after drinking a magic potion or hearing a well-rehearsed inspirational quote. But this is still basketball. As long as UP doesn’t give up the lead at the end of the final game, they will have a fighting chance for the title.

It’s true that beating Ateneo is like threading a needle, or hitting the lottery jackpot. It’s close to impossible. Still, UP can pull it off by being who they have been all season long: Matatapang, Matatalino.

Matatapang.

Going up against Ateneo is as mental of a battle as it is physical. Flinch, and the Blue Eagles will take advantage. Being tentative won’t help the Fighting Maroons overcome a team as great as the Blue Eagles. It didn’t help FEU during their Final Four match. It didn’t help any team during the elimination round.

UP should go all-in on their brand of tapang—the courage to go up against the status quo. Ateneo may be the powerhouse of the UAAP today, but UP is here to overthrow the kings. To do so, they should bring the revolution from the streets to the hardcourt.

Ateneo has a former Gilas Pilipinas head coach? Two human cheat codes in Angelo Kouame and Thirdy Ravena? The deepest lineup in the entire UAAP? To hell with all that. UP doesn’t back down against any opponent.

Time and time again, UP has faced adversities and pulled through.

UP went through a three-game losing streak in the first round and were 3-5 at one point in the season. They were in real danger of missing the Final Four this year. But they racked up key wins to get themselves back in contention. With a seat in the Final Four on the line, they didn’t back down from UAAP basketball royalty. They clobbered perennial finalists La Salle to make it to the Final Four.

Just when people thought that the Final Four was the last stop, UP took the steering wheel and drove their own ride to higher expectations. They shrugged off a twice-to-beat disadvantage and defeated Adamson-the second-best team in the league-twice, to barge into the Finals.

The Fighting Maroons won’t just bend its knee for anyone. Walang takot kahit kanino, not even the Blue Eagles.

Matatalino.

Being courageous against a dominant Ateneo team is just the first half the battle.

Playing smart basketball is the other. Ateneo is an elite, highly disciplined, cohesive team that’s ready to punish any opponent, on any given night, on both ends of the floor. The Blue Eagles are precise, accurate and efficient. They don’t make many mistakes throughout the game and they also don’t allow their opponents to commit mistakes such without making them pay for it.

As such, UP has to be ready to execute 40 minutes of excellent basketball for the entire series. Hindi magpapahuli. Fight fire with fire, excellent basketball with excellent basketball.

To do so, the Fighting Maroons should not fall trap to Ateneo’s style, which is slower compared to theirs. Instead, they should look to push the pace and stick to their relentless, efficient offense that they have shown all season long.

Their performance will heavily rely on three people: Bright Akhuetie, Juan Gomez de Liaño and Paul Desiderio. Coach Bo Perasol should find ways to get these three in their rhythm as early as possible. The three UP superstars have been excellent during this run to the Finals.

Akhuetie sets the tone for the the Fighting Maroons. His presence in the paint should be felt early and often to soften the Blue Eagles inside. Gomez De Liano is the fire starter of the Fighting Maroons. When he’s running and gunning, even the Blue Eagle defense has trouble stopping him. Desiderio is the closer. Let’s be honest: there’s very little chance that UP will blow Ateneo out.  What they need to do is to keep the game as close as possible so that their leader has the chance to win the game in the end.

More than the offense, Coach Bo should find a way to tighten up his defense. UP showcased its improved defense in the final few games of the eliminations and the Final Four. They found ways to slow down incredible scorers like Aljun Melecio and Jerrick Ahanmisi using different schemes and strategies.

However, the Blue Eagles are a totally different beast. UP may have the best offense statistically, but Ateneo is running at close second. The Blue Eagle offense excels both on the individual and the team level.

As such, UP will need to play stingy, stifling, physical defense with solid communication the entire game. They can’t let up, not even for a second, as guys like Thirdy Ravena and Angelo Kouame, or practically anyone on the squad can take over the game in a flash.

But as they’ve done this season, Coach Bo, together with his Fighting Maroons, will find a way to deliver when it matters the most.

So, Ateneo na ‘to? No, it’s not. It’s time to knock the Blue Eagles off their pedestal. No longer is UP gonna live behind the shadows of success of a neighboring university. It’s time to take the throne to the other side of Katipunan.

This is the time to set the gardens on fire once more. Diliman, Manila, Los Baños, Baguio, Visayas and Mindanao will rejoice as the long wait for a title will finally come to a close.

This is UP’s destiny. Not even Ateneo’s impending dynasty can stop the Fighting Maroons from claiming the title and all the spoils that come with it.

This is UP’s time.

Sa UP ‘to.

Atin ‘to.