MANILA, Philippines—There were only 3.7 seconds left in the game, and the crowd at Mall of Asia Arena was chanting his mantra.
A majority of the 14,000 fans that packed the venue on Saturday afternoon were wearing maroon, and they were shouting “Atin ‘to, atin ‘to,” as University of the Philippines prepared to run its final play of the game against Adamson University.
Paul Desiderio heard the crowd. He had been hearing them all game long.
The graduating UP guard was not having a particularly good game. He was scoreless in the first half, and Adamson claimed a slim 29-28 advantage at halftime of their final 4 game. Desiderio knew his poor play could not continue; otherwise, UP’s campaign in UAAP Season 81 would end.
“Nag-i-struggle ako noong first half,” he admitted. “Pero noong nakita ko sila, sabi ko, lalaban ako para sa kanila.”
Desiderio made good on his word. He scored nine points in the third quarter, helping UP run out to a 54-43 lead. He added 10 more in the fourth frame — and the Fighting Maroons needed everyone on the team to fend off the Soaring Falcons.
His last bucket was reminiscent of his clutch heroics for UP in Season 80, when he memorably drilled game-winning three-pointers against University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University, and gave his team a rallying cry: “Atin ’to, papasok ’to.”
With the game tied at 69, Desiderio knocked down a step-back jump shot to give UP a 71-69 lead with just 5.5 seconds left. Adamson called a timeout, and as they went to bench, the UP crowd rose up and began to chant: “Atin ’to, atin ’to.”
“Wala,” said Desiderio of his shot. “Nasa isip ko lang, atin ’to.”
But for a while, it appeared as though Adamson was all set to snatch their moment. Sean Manganti — designated public enemy No. 1 in UP — drew a foul from Janjan Jaboneta, and made two free throws that tied the game once more with just 3.7 seconds left.
“Iniisip ko noong nagra-rally ang Adamson, sabi ko na, ‘Ito na naman’,” said Desiderio, referring to their two heartbreaking losses to the Soaring Falcons in the elimination round.
“Pero kumbaga nakikita ko ’yung community eh.”
The community would not let UP down. Desiderio said he still remembers his rookie season, when barely anyone watched their games — “Halos hindi aabot ng 10,” he said of their crowd. But now, a bulk of the over 14,000 fans at MoA Arena were cheering for them.
And they were chanting his mantra, as they walked back to the court with 3.7 seconds left, with a chance to extend their season. Desiderio heard them as they shouted “Atin ‘to, atin ‘to, atin ‘to.”
“Sabi ko, amin talaga ito,” Desiderio said in response.
Last season, he was often the hero for UP. On Saturday, Desiderio did the dirty work that made victory possible. He set the most solid of screens on Adamson’s Papi Sarr, freeing Bright Akhuetie up to receive Juan Gomez de Liano’s inbound pass.
He valiantly kept Sarr out of Akhuetie’s way as UP’s center converted the game-winning bucket, then rushed back to deny the Falcons a chance to steal the win in the final seconds of the game.
“Solid pick ang binigay ko kay Papi Sarr, kahit na ang laki, ang laki ni Papi Sarr. Tapos, pag pick ko pa kay Papi Sarr, ang liit ko, 5-10, nag-seal ako sa kanya. Kumbaga, nakita ko na talaga na andoon na si Bright, so sineal ko na lang si Papi Sarr,” an elated Desiderio explained after the game.
“Kumbaga, amin talaga ’yun,” he declared.
The Fighting Maroons hacked out a 73-71 win, keeping their season alive, and giving themselves a chance to enter the UAAP finals for the first time since 1986. Desiderio, who finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in the victory, is ready to claim the moment once more.
“Kumbaga, ilang taon na hindi nakakapasok ang UP sa finals,” he said. “Ilang taon na talaga? Kumbaga, eto na ’yun. Malay mo, one game, isang laro.”
“Kung hindi man namin nakuha ang larong ito, at least nabigyan namin ng chance ang sarili namin na one step na lang kami, nasa finals na,” he said.
The do-or-die game is set on Wednesday at Araneta Coliseum.
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