UAAP Finals: UP's turning point of the season as told by seniors

Danine Cruz on Dec 07, 2018 06:09 PM
UP's turning point of the season as told by seniors
UP's #16Strong mantra also means that every voice in the team matters

The genesis of the historic UAAP Season 81 run of the University of the Philippines was not a promising one.

Expectations were extremely high on the Fighting Maroons as they entered the season because of various reasons.

Coach Bo Perasol was already in his third year since he took over UP's program. In college basketball language, the third year is when all rebuilding work should come to fruition.

Bright Akhuetie, the dominant foreign-student athlete who transferred from NCAA to UAAP, was done with residency and could finally suit up for the luntian at pula.

UP's prophetic sharp shooter and team captain Paul Desiderio decided to play his fifth year, choosing to close out his collegiate career over the chance to be immediately drafted into the professional ranks.

Juan Gomez de Liano was entering his sophomore year with a Rookie of the Year award under his belt and was expected to improve more as a playmaker.

Plus, the Fighting Maroons already had a lot of sponsors and financial support.

But after the first round of the eliminations, despite all the supposed advantages that were on their side in the beginning of the season, the so-called Final Four contenders still found themselves in the sixth spot with a disappointing 3-4 record.

To open the second round, they were slapped with another loss against the Ateneo de Manila University, relegating them to a 3-5 slate.

At that point, graduating players Desiderio, Diego Dario, Jarrell Lim, Gelo Vito, and JJ Espanola decided that they were no longer having any of it. They are not going to leave UP as losers again.

So they decided to call a seniors only meeting.

"People were already doubting us. So kaming mga seniors, nag lunch kami noon sa Frankie's sa UP Town [Center] to meet," said Lim, referring to a popular chicken wings restaurant in the mall across the Diliman campus.

"Nag-meeting kami. Parang anong nangyayari? Hindi ito yung season na ineexpect namin, what is happening?" narrated Dario, "So we went in to the details. We made sure na balanced yung insights namin with Paul's perspective, someone who plays a lot, tapos our perspective na usually from the bench, from the outside, kung ano nakikita namin."

The seniors did not only talk about team culture or mindset, but they heavily discussed their plays, rotation, and moves - things that are usually considered by the coaching staff.

"Yung mga usapan na walang bench production, hindi nakakapag-pahinga si ganito kasi hindi nagpoproduce si ganyan, or mga plays - to the detail talaga yung mga pinagusapan namin," Vito narrated.

"Given all our insights, we decided to talk to our coaches," said Dario.

However, talking to the coaches was something the seniors were not sure how to do. They did not want to give the impression that they were undermining the authority of their coaching staff, most especially coach Bo's, but at the same time they knew they had to let their insights out.

"Noong una, kinakabahan pa kami kasi baka ma-insult sila, na baka coach Bo will feel disrespected. We were really scared of talking to him," shared Lim.

"Baka kasi isipin niya 'You don't trust me?" Dario added.

The seniors pressed on and forwarded their concerns to their assistant coaches. Eventually, their insights reached Perasol and he called them in for another seniors only meeting.

"Kinabahan na kami! Parang hala, anong sasabihin ni Coach? Nag-text si Coach Mo [Gingerich], 'Coach Bo wants to talk to you, Coach Ricky [Dandan] pitched your ideas and he's really positive with it and he wants to meet you guys before practice,'" narrated Vito.

The seniors came in to the meeting feeling scared but they came out of it feeling validated. It was a revelation of Perasol's character as a players' coach. The seniors shared that in the meeting, Perasol listened to them and made them feel that their voice mattered.

"Doon mo talaga masasabi how coach Bo is as a coach. Sobrang respectful and talagang he really listens to his players. Dun mo talagang masasabi na Papa Bo mo talaga siya," said Lim, "Not even once did we hear any negative response from coach Bo kaya mahal na mahal talaga namin siya, lalo na kaming mga senior kasi siya talaga yung nag lead sa amin sa pagbabago."

"He really is like a dad to us, legit," added Dario.

Right after the meeting, the changes they wanted to see in the team were implemented right away.

Aside from the tweaks in the plays, the seniors decided to alter the mood in their training as well.

As Dario described, "We made sure to set the example in practice so from then, go hard kami sa practice. Nagkakapikunan na nga kami minsan sa sobrang intense."

What makes that meeting more monumental is that since then, the Fighting Maroons started collecting wins. It was the turning point of the season. From a 3-5 slate, they finished the eliminations in the third spot with an 8-6 record.

"Yun yung naging turning point, yun yung puro wins na kami," said Lim proudly.

"Natalo lang kami sa Adamson [sa eliminations] tapos puro panalo na," added Vito.

UP made it back in the Final Four after 21 years. For the first time in their season, they were meeting the expectations that were set on them in the beginning.

But if we are talking about expectations, apparently UP was not just going to meet them, they went on to exceed them. 

In the semifinals, they overcame a twice-to-beat advantage held by Adamson University, which earned them a ticket to the Finals against the Ateneo de Manila University.

It was their first time back in the Finals after 32 years.

They may have failed to win a single game in the heavily lopsided best-of-three Finals series, but they were able to mount a story that will forever remain a classic.

They won't deny that this silver finish still glitters like gold, not only to the team, but to the rest of the UP community.

The Fighting Maroons' story this season is a testament that winners are not just made in the hardcourt.

Winners are made during meetings over chicken wings, in intense team practices, and with coaches who listen.

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @the9cruz

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