Nothing– not questionable calls, nor free throw shooting woes– could stop history, as the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons Men’s Basketball Team have made their first UAAP Finals since 1986.

The Fighting Maroons took home a hard-fought overtime victory over the Adamson (AdU) Soaring Falcons, 89-87, on Wednesday, November 28, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

The first quarter was decidedly in UP’s favor. Reigning MVP Bright Akhuetie and his co-Mythical Five awardee Juan Gomez de Liano each got a couple of good looks to start the frame. Diego Dario and Javi Gomez de Liano also scored one three-pointers apiece which helped set the tempo for UP’s offense.

But what really set the tone was the defense anchored by Janjan Jaboneta, as UP kept Adamson’s offense at bay for the entire quarter, with UP maintaining its lead throughout the period. Five straight points from Paul Desiderio closed out the quarter, 26-16.

The second quarter caused a few more problems for State U defensively with a number of fouls called against the Maroons, to which the UP faithful were quick to contest.

The UP squad didn’t let this stop them as back-to-back threes from Juan Gomez de Liano kept the team’s offense steady. The Mythical Five member scored 16 of his 20 first half points in this quarter, with UP closing out the frame on a positive 51-42 note.

It was the third quarter that started causing problems for the Fighting Maroons as UP’s defense couldn’t hinder Adamson’s shooting.

The Fighting Maroons were also without the offensive firepower typically provided by Juan Gomez de Liano, who had to sit out most of the quarter after finding himself in foul trouble.

Foul trouble also harmed the Fighting Maroons on the defensive end with Jaboneta fouling out of the game towards the end of the quarter, which had UP down three with a deficit of 64-67.

The final period of regulation started strong for the Fighting Maroons, with two made free throws from Desiderio and a basket from Javi Gomez de Liano keeping the Maroons within close reach.

Offensive contributions from the younger Gomez de Liano and Jun Manzo kept the team in the game. Manzo also grabbed a critical rebound in the last two minutes, which led to a foul on Jerson Prado who sunk both free throws.

Following Prado’s free throws, UP found themselves with a three-point lead, which was cut down to a worrying one-point lead after a shot by Jerrick Ahanmisi. But with eight seconds left in the game, Manzo secured the difficult layup, putting the UP Fighting Maroons back up by three.

The UP crowd, with only seconds left in the game, began celebrating as they could already taste the first Finals berth in 32 years. But these hopes and expectations were crushed as Adamson’s Jerom Lastimosa eked out a corner three that briefly silenced the UP crowd and tied the game for the Falcons.

With five seconds left, Desiderio attempted a basket of his own that rattled in and out of the rim. The missed shot sent the game into overtime at 78-all.

The overtime period was wire-to-wire, with Adamson taking an early lead to start the extra frame. But six straight points from Dario, Juan Gomez de Liano, and Akhuetie kept State U’s Finals hopes alive.

Free throw shooting proved to be quite the enemy in this period, as Manzo and Akhuetie both missed a number of crucial free throws. These missed free throws allowed Adamson to catch up and tie the game once again, through a set of free throws of their own.

But with the game at 87-87, it was Fighting Maroon captain Desiderio who finally gave Adamson a taste of their own medicine with a beautiful midrange isolation jumper, putting the Fighting Maroons up by two with six seconds left.

As Adamson prepared for their final possession, the UP faithful became a creature possessed, chanting “Atin ‘To!” as an echo to Desiderio’s iconic battle cry of “Atin ‘to, Papasok ‘to!” which dates back to UP’s opening match against UST in Season 80.

Adamson failed to make a shot, and the clock ran down with the 2018 UP Fighting Maroons Men’s Basketball Team effectively making history and satiating what the UP crowd has hungered for for over three decades.

Following the immensely emotional victory, Coach Bo Perasol admitted that being sent into overtime momentarily took away the Maroons’ momentum, but praised his players saying, “These guys just refuse to give up. Juan, Paul, Bright, they were just too tired. But the opponent was also tired, and it was going to be a grind-out game, so whoever wants to win this more is going to make it.”

On the game winner, Perasol admitted that Desiderio’s confidence was the driving force behind the shot. He joked, “Kapal kasi ng mukha niya eh.

However, Perasol added that he fully believed in Desiderio to make big shots, and that it reflected the drive of the entire squad.

“The road isn’t easygoing. You have to find the courage. You have to find the skills, talents, and persistence to be in a place like [the UAAP Finals] that we are in right now. It wasn’t easy, but it’s all worth it,” Perasol said.

He also sung praises for the UP community, thanking them for rallying behind the team. “For thirty years, we’ve been the butt of jokes. Malakas ang UP sa lahat ng aspects ng society – sa politics, sa business, sa judiciary, pero pagdating sa basketball, kulelat si UP. Kaya kung nakikita mo, nagkakaroon sila ng bragging rights, and a moment that would unite them in a way na pwede tayo magsama-sama rito kahit iba-iba tayo ng paniniwala sa politika, o kung saan man.

The game ended with Juan Gomez de Liano leading all scorers with 30. Paul Desiderio and Bright Akhuetie both notched double-doubles, with Desiderio scoring 16 with 11 rebounds, and Akhuetie nabbing 13 points and 17 rebounds.

Adamson star Jerrick Ahanmisi scored 20, while their other star wing Sean Manganti was held to only six points.

With the UP community by its side, and 32 years of thirsting, the Fighting Maroons have finally arranged themselves a date in the UAAP Finals, where they will face a tough challenge against the very team that swept them in the regular season.

The Fighting Maroons will face the Ateneo Blue Eagles in game one of the Finals, this Saturday, December 1, at the Mall of Asia Arena. TNP

Photo by Summer Padilla

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