MANILA, Philippines—University of the Philippines' run to the UAAP Season 81 finals was the feel-good story of the year, as the Fighting Maroons ended a 32-year wait to return to the biggest stage in collegiate basketball.
Their Cinderella story was ended by a remarkable Ateneo de Manila University team in the finals, with the Blue Eagles simply overwhelming the Fighting Maroons in two games. Game 2 was a showcase of Ateneo's excellence: they crushed their Katipunan neighbors 99-81 to win a second straight crown.
When the series was over, the Blue Eagles were elated and thrilled, having added a 10th title to their collection. Matt Nieto leapt to the officials' table, and was wildly cheered for it. Thirdy Ravena, the finals MVP, spread his arms, as if he could embrace the entire Ateneo gallery in his happiness.
On the other side of the court, there were tears for the Fighting Maroons — tears for their loss, tears for the end of their campaign, and tears for their graduating captain, Paul Desiderio, who inspired not just the team but the entire UP community, and gave them a rallying cry that will live on for years.
There were tears, yes, yet there was also an overflowing sense of hope, of optimism, as if the final buzzer of Game 2 marked not the end but just the beginning for a UP team that can only get better and better.
UP coach Bo Perasol felt that hope. He had been vocal about wanting to change his alma mater's basketball program, and had wanted to fire up the community that had for so long been aloof to the plight of the Maroons, as the team dwelled in mediocrity.
On Wednesday, a crowd of more than 23,000 watched them play at the Araneta Coliseum, more than half of them clad in maroon. None of them left, even as UP succumbed to the Blue Eagles. Instead, they all celebrated a season that went better than anyone expected, and paid tribute to the players that made it possible.
"We have to focus on the whole season," said Perasol, whose post-game speech to his team has gone viral. "We cannot just be myopic, and say that we lost the game."
"Of course, we lost the finals, but I think that all in all, we became champions in our own rights," he said.
Perasol is aware that his team's incredible run in Season 81 is only setting the stage for what should be an even wilder, even more intense campaign in Season 82. They will lose Desiderio, and to be sure they will miss his scoring, his clutch heroics, and his fiery leadership. They will lose four other seniors, but UP will welcome a couple of recruits that they have been waiting for a year now — Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras.
Rivero and Paras need no introduction, and their addition will make UP not just a final 4 team in Season 82. They should be a finals contender, and Perasol knows it.
"I'm so excited about my prospects. Kung ang expectation mas mataas ngayon, how much more is that going to be?" he said. "There's no question, hey, when they ask you, it's going to be the finals, now. Not the final 4."
"So, it's about the finals when we go back in there. And even if I say it's final 4, nobody is going to believe me now," added Perasol, who has taken UP from sixth, to fifth, and now to runners-up in his three years in charge.
On the other side of Katipunan, they are all too aware that their vanquished foes will be back with a vengeance.
-- 'Dangerous team' --
Coach Tab Baldwin made the adjustments in Game 2. He saw how the Blue Eagles won by just nine points in the first game, and saw how UP made 13-of-28 three-pointers. He had not been satisfied with how they defended, with all the open shots they gave up.
"I think we learned some things from Game 1. I think there were some strategies that were fairly apparent from UP which we made some adjustments to," Baldwin said after their triumph. "I think that’s why you saw a little bit more individual play, particularly from Thirdy, a little more isolation play."
Despite Ateneo's adjustments, UP still put up 81 points in Game 2; Ateneo's offense was just better. Baldwin came away from the series impressed by the Fighting Maroons, acknowledging that it was tough even for his superb defensive team to shut them down.
"They are a force to be reckoned with," he said, "And I don't think they are going to get any easier next year."
"Next year" is already in the minds of Baldwin's players, even as they bask in the glow of their latest championship. It is no secret that Rivero and Paras will join UP in Season 82, and the Blue Eagles are well aware of what those two are capable of.
"It's a very dangerous team," said Matt Nieto. "They will be a tough team next year, and we expect that it's gonna be a hard time for us na kalaban ang UP."
The experience that the Maroons gained in the Season 81 finals can only help them, Nieto said, and further fire them up.
"I'm very excited for them. Not excited na lalakas sila, pero I'm excited for them na they really have the heart, they have the skill, they have the personnel to win a championship next year," he said.
His twin brother, Mike, said: "It's just the start for them."
"Next year, with Ricci and Kobe coming in, they'll just become stronger," added Mike.
Paras and Rivero are the big additions, but those who remain in UP are no slouches themselves. Juan Gomez de Liano, a Mythical Team member in just his second year, should be even better, as is older brother Javi. Veteran point guard Jun Manzo will surely try to live up to the "Atin 'To" legacy of Desiderio, his good friend from Cebu.
And Bright Akhuetie, the MVP, will still be there, to anchor the Fighting Maroons.
-- Rematch? --
As early as now, there are murmurs that UP and Ateneo are headed for a finals rematch. Juan GDL already advocated for it, especially as the Fighting Maroons went 0-4 against their Katipunan neighbors this year.
And as stacked as UP will be in 2019, it's not as if Ateneo will take a massive step back, either. The defending champions will only lose veteran guard Anton Asistio; they will still have Ravena, the Nieto twins, rookie of the year Ange Kouame, and a bevy of veterans that include Isaac Go and Raffy Verano. The Blue Eagles may be as deep as ever in Season 82.
The champions insist that it's a little too early to think of the "Battle of Katipunan: Part 2", however.
"We'll have to figure that out," said Ravena. "But as of now, we're gonna enjoy and cherish every single moment of our championship. Probably about next week or next, next week, andoon na 'yung mindset namin."
Besides, it's not as if UP will be the only threats to their reign, said Ravena.
"Hindi lang UP ang malakas. There are a lot of teams na nagi-improve from this year, so we can only work harder kasi makikita natin na hard work works," he said earnestly. "Kapag ganoon, bakit mo papalitan? So keep working hard."
Matt Nieto pointed out that both teams have to reach the finals first, certainly not an easy undertaking.
"Ayaw ko mag-predict," he said. "Pero paghihirapan namin na bumalik sa Finals."
And should they get there?
"Why not? Why not UP? Ang ganda ng series, ang ganda ng mga laban, and the fans," Matt said. "It's really fun playing against Juan, Javi, mga Atenista, actually mga kakampi namin dati. It's fun that you see them improving, and it's fun na makakalaban mo sila."
None of this, of course, is certain. There is a year to go before Season 82, and so many things can happen. University of Santo Tomas and De La Salle University, two teams that missed the final 4, are looming on the horizon, determined to crash the party. Adamson University and Far Eastern University, the beaten semifinalists, will want write their own fairy tale next year, too. And for all their struggles in Season 81, University of the East and National University cannot be discounted.
What is certain is that Ateneo is already bracing for UP, for Ricci and Kobe, for Juan and Javi GDL, for coach Bo Perasol. They see the other side of Katipunan and they know that this is a rivalry that may no longer be so one-sided.
And they know they have to be ready.
"It motivates us," Matt said. "It drives us more to work hard, because we know that UP is gonna bounce back."
"We will be ready for Season 82," he vowed.
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