Two years after he left the University of Perpetual Help System, Bright Akhuetie is now finals-bound in the UAAP Season 81 Men’s Basketball Tournament, donning the maroon and white.

After surviving Adamson’s twice-to-beat advantage in the semifinals, the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons finally put an end to the 32-year finals drought.

The prized recruit served as the missing piece in the State U defense, as he took the mantle of the big man at the center, averaging 14.6 rebounds, 0.625 steals, and 0.93 blocks in the season.

It just really makes me feel I am in the right place, like where I really belong,” the 6-foot-6 Nigerian told TNP.

Coming into their first championship match against the top-seeded Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles, Akhuetie will have another much-awaited match-up against their Ivorian recruit Angelo Kouame.

The 6-foot-10 Kouame trailed behind Akhuetie in the MVP race with 13.6 rebounds, 0.928 steals, and 3.21 blocks per game, but was not awarded as per UAAP rule on foreign student-athletes.

“It’s not just Kouame to worry about, it’s the whole team. Ateneo has a deep bench, so we have to prepare for everybody, not just Kouame,” said Akhuetie.

Looking back in their second-round encounter on Oct. 14, UP was stunned by Ateneo’s bench pick Tyler Tio, who tallied 12 points and five assists, replacing injured Matt Nieto.  

But the defending champions have yet to play against this version of the Fighting Maroons, who are on a five-game winning streak.

“We’re not in the second game. We made an adjustment and it actually worked on the others,” Akhuetie told TNP.

Despite predictions that UP will reserve its finals appearance next season with the addition of former DLSU superstar Ricci Rivero and Creighton University standout Kobe Paras, Akhuetie says that they will not wait any longer.

“We’re not waiting for next year. We’ll start this year,” he said.

Although the odds are in favor of their Katipunan neighbor, the Fighting Maroons will continue to rely on their new strategy, where Akhuetie starts the game with UP captain Paul Desiderio and Jun Manzo, while Juan Gomez de Liano comes off the bench.

“It’s not gonna be easy against Ateneo… We all have one ball in the court and there are five people, so we really need to play together. I think we can,” Akhuetie said. “I always believe, that’s why we got this far.”

The best-of-three Battle of Katipunan finals will begin on Saturday, December 1, 3:30 p.m., at the Mall of Asia Arena. TNP

Photo by Summer Padilla

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