Theater of the absurd featuring UP, Adamson turns into game for the ages

Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 29 2018 05:59 PM

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This wasn’t for the championship. These weren’t two schools that have a steep basketball history. This wasn’t Green versus Blue, but a matchup between that other blue varsity and another side whose team nickname is an actual color.

At first glance, a final-4 meeting between University of the Philippines (UP) and Adamson didn’t seem to offer anything except a winner whose role is to be the last stumbling block for Ateneo’s juggernaut Blue Eagles and their inevitable coronation.

True, history beckoned for UP and Adamson, as they attempted to end a drought of UAAP finals appearances spanning six Philippine presidential terms. The “finally breaking through” story arc is a time-tested narrative when it comes to drawing people and compelling them to look, see what’s going on, and have a rooting interest. The selling point for this series was one team was, at long last, going where it had never been in a really, really long time.

The pervading consensus prior to this matchup between two traditionally underachieving programs was this: when the final buzzer will have sounded, a stretch of futility will end, fans will talk about it, the buzz will fade, and it’s on to the reality that taking on reigning champion Ateneo is the prize of victory.

But these two games between UP and Adamson turned out to be more than that — God, so much more. (The first game was on Saturday, in case the more intense sequel made one forget.)

On Wednesday, especially, no run was decisive enough to the point that it demoralized either team; instead, falling behind seemed to rouse a sense of urgency. Players were out-clutching one another. Both sides were spent down the stretch, but the players dug deep and deeper still, using up every drop of their will power as a helluva do-or-die game took a physical, punishing toll on their bodies.

These weren’t pros with their livelihoods at stake, mind you; these were student-athletes in their late teens or early 20-somethings playing for the purest of goals -- winning.

“You already won it, then parang iniisip mo, how can you win it better? I’m just happy to be in the finals . . . We’re blessed to have this kind of win,” UP head coach Bo Perasol said.

Supporters of the Fighting Maroons and the Soaring Falcons rally behind their respective teams. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Supporters of the Fighting Maroons and the Soaring Falcons rally behind their respective teams. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Those who watched this game know better now not to fall for the predictable.

A double-digit lead in the third quarter behind a scorching shooting display by Juan Gomez de Liano and a firmly in-control UP was supposed to take the fight out of Adamson, but the Soaring Falcons made non-believers look foolish by storming back from a 61-51 deficit and taking a 67-64 lead heading into the fourth.

A swift momentum swing such as that would have taken the fight out of anybody, but UP stayed in there and relied on Jun Manzo and Jerson Prado late to put the Fighting Maroons in the driver’s seat 78-75 and in a position to end the game at that stage.

A three-point lead by UP with 10 seconds left in regulation seemed a sure thing until Jerom Lastimosa sank a triple that led to overtime. In the extension, a six-point lead by Adamson looked a safe enough buffer until Paul Desiderio came alive and hit two gutsy buckets that put UP ahead for good.

The game had gotten so ridiculously unpredictable at this point that people were betting on the impossible to happen, which meant that with 6 seconds left, Lastimosa, whom Adamson trusted to make a winning play at this highly pressurized juncture, could realistically bail out the Soaring Falcons.

But Lastimosa overshot his open 3-point attempt, and that was that. UP won 89-87 and the battle with a Jesuit school for that 4-kilometer stretch of road in the name of basketball glory is set.

These weren’t two schools that have a steep basketball history or a longstanding rivalry that traditionally brought in the ratings, but UP and Adamson still put on a show for the ages. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Wednesday’s affair was 45 minutes of everything that fans love about sports, whether they had a dog in this series or not. (Full disclosure: this writer didn’t go to either university.) It stopped feeling like a game, ceased to be a matter of X’s and O’s, and analytics altogether. It became unscripted theater with an insane amount of plot twists that aren’t for that faint of heart.

Who thought that Lastimosa, and not his more high-profile teammates, would keep Adamson in the game amid the direst of situations? Hard to imagine Desiderio, after missing 14 of his first 16 shots, would make the critical baskets that essentially gave UP the win.

Of Desiderio, Perasol said: “Nakikita mo na naman na ang dami niyang mintis before that, pero alam niya na for the win, aakuin niya na.”

Of his journey from his province to Adamson, Lastimosa said: “Nu’ng paglipat ko rito (Adamson), di ko in-expect na mako-contain ko ‘yung laro ko mula sa Dumaguete papunta rito kasi siyempre di pa ko naka-realize sa UAAP. Pero sinubukan ko ’yung laro ko sa Dumaguete, inilaro ko rito.”

After a subpar showing on Saturday, Jerrick Ahanmisi gave a better account of himself by tallying a team-high 20 points, only for cramps to put a downer on his efforts. Even though he was a rising star, Juan Gomez de Liano still had to prove he could perform at a high level under a more glaring spotlight; he did that Wednesday by dropping a career-high 30 points and nobody should question anymore that he’s the real deal.
“We live for these kinds of moments, and yeah, going back, we started from the bottom,” Gomez de Liano said. “It was all a dream, so why are we gonna stop now? Why are we gonna stop? We’ll just keep going and going, go back to practice tomorrow and just get better?”

The action at the Big Dome was absurd and for everyone’s sake, it never bore anything controversial or transpired into something ugly. The refereeing, by and large, didn’t decide the outcome. In an environment that intense and a competition that cut-throat, the game could have devolved into a regrettable scene or two. Everyone displayed class, and that deserved serious applause.

“If you are going to make a telenovela,” Perasol said of the game, “how are you going to make it better than that?”

This wasn’t for the championship, but for some players or teams the fear of losing repeatedly and the specter, fair or not, of being labelled as a disappointment for missing out on the finals for so long could be a powerful motivator.

These weren’t two schools that have a steep basketball history or a longstanding rivalry that traditionally brought in the ratings, but UP and Adamson still put on a show for the ages.

This series delivered more than it promised, although it’s hard to say how easily the buzz and the excitement surrounding it will fade. It really depends on how the finals will play out, and how dominant Ateneo will perform.

And how the Fighting Maroons, drained and delirious at the same time, find a way to derail the mighty Blue Eagles’ plans.

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