MANILA, Philippines – If University of the Philippines (UP) wants to make the UAAP Final Four for the first time since 1997, they will have to do so the hard way.
This, after the Fighting Maroons slumped to a 70-86 loss to Adamson University last Sunday that put their UAAP Season 80 record at 5-7 with just two games left in their schedule. As it stands, UP is a full game behind Far Eastern University for the last spot in the semifinals.
This means that all their remaining games – a date with Ateneo de Manila University on November 8 and with National University (NU) on November 11 – are absolute must-wins for the Fighting Maroons.
"We haven't been here (in this situation before)," admitted UP coach Bo Perasol when asked about their mindset heading into the final stretch of the elimination round. "Wala eh – hindi naman kami sanay dito."
For Perasol, their remaining games should serve as a learning experience for the Fighting Maroons, at the very least. Even if they fail to make it to the semifinals, at least now they know what it takes to compete at that kind of level.
"We have to be aware of what's happening," he explained. "So that, kung ano man ang matutunan namin sa mga games na ito, sa mga crucial games na ito, baka ma-share namin sa mga susunod na seasons."
"Ganito pala ito, ganito pala 'yun. 'Yun 'yung mga bagay na kailangan makuha namin as a team. Matuto kami collectively (how to) play with pressure, play with so much at stake," he added.
But don't take Perasol's words as a sign that UP has all but given up hope of making the Final Four. Though he acknowledged that they will have to go through the proverbial eye of the needle to get there, Perasol assured that the Fighting Maroons will keep fighting.
"It is my job to keep their spirits up," he points out.
The first hurdle that they have to face is their Katipunan neighbors, Ateneo. The Blue Eagles have steamrolled through UAAP Season 80 so far, and when the played in the first round, they crushed the Fighting Maroons, 92-71.
"We have to find a way how we can compete against a team like Ateneo," said Perasol. "The best motivation there would be, that is a spotless team."
"What a way for us to end our season with a win against a team without a loss," he added, referring to the immaculate 12-0 win-loss slate that Ateneo will carry into their showdown on Wednesday.
"That's a very tall order," the coach also acknowledged. "But then again, lalaruin pa naman eh. Malay mo – malasin sila."
An upset is not out of the question: In Season 79, UP pulled the rug out from under Ateneo, 56-52, when they played in the second round.
It will help that the Fighting Maroons will feature a more complete line-up on Wednesday. Star rookie Juan Gomez de Liaño missed the game against Adamson due to an ankle sprain, and starting point guard Jun Manzo also missed a chunk of minutes in the third quarter due to a minor injury as well.
Both guards are expected to play against Ateneo, and so is center Ibrahim Outtara, who limped out of the Adamson game with over four minutes left with an ankle sprain as well.
"Sabi ko nga, we cannot fight if we're not complete," said Perasol. "We have to fight complete, and we have to finish this season na todo ang aming force."
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