MANILA, Philippines—Paul Desiderio had already claimed the win for University of the Philippines in the fourth quarter.
The veteran UP guard was fouled by Adamson's Simon Camacho with 6:55 to go in their do-or-die game in the UAAP Season 81 Final 4 as he was attempting a three-pointer. He missed the first, made the second, then was muttered "Atin 'to, atin 'to" as he lined up to take the third and final free throw.
Desiderio missed, again.
The truth was that Desiderio was not having a particularly good game offensively. He was struggling from the field, having made just two field goals as the Fighting Maroons headed into the fourth quarter — a triple to end the first frame, and then another three-pointer in UP's final possession of the second period.
The Fighting Maroons stayed afloat, however, thanks in part to sophomore guard Juan Gomez de Liano who was unstoppable. Last season's Rookie of the Year put up 20 points in the first half to steer UP to a 51-42 lead, then added five more points in the third quarter as the Maroons surged to a 16-point advantage, 60-44.
But when Gomez de Liano headed to the bench with four fouls, the Soaring Falcons caught up. The game turned into a back-and-forth contest by the final period, and Adamson dragged UP to overtime when Jerom Lastimosa drilled a game-tying three-pointer with 2.6 seconds to go for a 78-all count.
Desiderio had a chance to win the game outright, but his heave from behind the arc swirled in and out of the rim as the buzzer sounded. At the end of regulation, the veteran guard was a woeful 2-of-17 from the field.
He would miss another attempt in the early goings of overtime, as Adamson took over, 84-78. At this point, all seemed lost for UP as the Soaring Falcons clearly had the momentum.
But Desiderio knew UP could still get the job done.
"Last week, pumunta ako sa office ni boss Ronald (Mascariñas, president of Bounty Agro Ventures Inc.). Sabi niya sa akin, 'Never give up'," Desiderio said. "Kahit ano'ng mangyari, kahit down ka man o ano, 'wag kang susuko dahil may magandang mapupuntahan kapag hindi ka sumuko."
The words of the businessman stayed with Desiderio, even as the Fighting Maroons stared at a six-point deficit with just 2:40 to play. Diego Dario drilled a jumper, Gomez de Liano added a lay-up, then Bright Akhuetie tied the game at 84 with 69 seconds left.
Then, Desiderio went to work. He drilled a wide-open three-pointer, his third of the game, for an 87-85 lead with 41.4 seconds to go. After Lastimosa tied the game once more with 27.1 seconds left, Desiderio took charge, and fired up the go-ahead jumper over the outstretched arms of Sean Manganti with 6.6 seconds left.
"Siyempre, 'atin 'to'," Desiderio said, chuckling, when asked what he was thinking in that moment.
UP coach Bo Perasol could only shake his head at the audacity of his veteran guard, who brushed off his paltry field-goal shooting early in the game and still took charge in the clutch.
"Wala, walang play 'yun, nasa kanya lang talaga 'yun, makapal lang talaga mukha nito. Gusto niya lang talaga na akuin eh. Nakikita mo na naman na ang dami niyang mintis before that, pero alam niya na for the win, aakuin niya na," said Perasol.
"Ikaw lang 'yung three out of (19) na kailangan, ishu-shoot niya pa in the end," he told Desiderio, who simply laughed and said: "OKlang, coach, madami namang masaya."
UP held on for the 89-87 victory, as the Fighting Maroons forced Lastimosa into a tough miss in the final seconds. The win gave the Fighting Maroons their first finals appearance in 32 years.
Desiderio finished with 16 points, making four of 20 field goals, along with 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 steals. He played nearly 36 minutes but was still brimming with energy after the game, as he looked forward to competing in the best-of-3 Finals against the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
"Sobrang saya, sobrang saya. Kasi ayun nga, lalo na graduating pa ako. Sobrang saya," he said.
It has been a long journey for Desiderio, who was a rookie in Season 76 when the Fighting Maroons stumbled through a winless season. They have improved steadily since then — thanks in large part to Perasol as well — and are now making the finals in his last year with the team.
"Siyempre para sa akin, kung ano man ang chance namin, iga-grab na namin 'yan," he said.
Game 1 of the best-of-3 Finals is on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
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