Paul Desiderio and the graduating Fighting Maroons cannot wait. The promise of a finals appearance for Season 82—with Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras in town—happened in Season 81.
A score of doormat finishes had just ended. Supremacy for the Iskolar ng Bayan is finally theirs.
After 32 years, the Diliman squad is back to the men’s basketball finals at the expense of Adamson University, 89-87, Wednesday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
And this is indeed a season to win for perennial closer Desiderio, who sank five straight points in the dying seconds of the game to send the Maroons to the pantheon of collegiate hoops greatness.
“Ano pa, edi atin ‘to,” Desiderio quipped when asked about his take charge performance in the endgame.
It was a heroic run for the Maroons, as they climbed up from a 78-84 deficit early in overtime, with consecutive shots from Diego Dario, Juan Gomez de Liano, and Bright Akhuetie to tie the score.
One made free throw from Jonathan Espeleta, who replaced the injured Jerrick Ahanmisi, gave Adamson the last taste of the lead, 85-84, as Desiderio sank a wide open triple off a pass from former Falcon Jaydee Tungcab thereafter.
Jerom Lastimosa, who earlier sent the game to overtime with a booming triple, calmly sank two free throws to tie the knot at 87.
But the Maroons were unfazed, as Desiderio was left in an isolation play against the much taller, much longer Sean Manganti.
Desiderio drove right, then did a half-pivot to the left, and swished his pull-up on his strong side from 13 feet.
With six seconds left, Adamson had the chance to book the finals ticket but streak-shooting Lastimosa muffed a wide open three. He finished the game with 17 points, seven rebounds, and five assists to complement Ahanmisi’s team-high of 20 points.
Desiderio finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and four steals, negating his paltry 4-20 shooting.
“Siya lang ang player na 4-20 (field goals) na magsu-shoot sa dulo,” UP head coach Bo Perasol sarcastically opined after the game.
He even joked about Desiderio’s winning shot, “Walang play yun, nasa kanya talaga yun, makapal talaga mukha nito. Aakuin nya talaga kahit andami nyang mintis.”
Nonetheless, Perasol commended his beloved ward. “If you want to be in this place, you have to take charge. And that mindset from Paul infected the entire team.
The historic finals appearance comes on the cusp of a star-studded lineup for the Fighting Maroons for Season 82, with the arrival of national team standouts Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras.
But for league Most Valuable Player Bright Akhuetie, there’s no waiting for next year.
“From the beginning, I knew that we’re making it this year,” the Nigerian, who tallied 13 points and 17 rebounds, told this writer. “I had no doubt about it. We’re not starting it next year. We’re looking forward to winning the championship.”
“Any successful program has to go through lots of struggles, maybe persecution,” said Perasol.
“This is a bridge we have to cross into greatness,” the third-year mentor, who will enter the finals for the first time after two botched final four run with Ateneo, added.
The Maroons started the game with guns ablaze, with de Liano firing 20 of his game-high 30 points in the first half off four triples and a sensational breakaway dunk.
His brother Javi also had two triples while Akhuetie surpassed his lethargic six-point output in game one for ten points early on.
In the third quarter, hot shooting from de Liano and Tungcab lifted the Maroons to a 60-44 lead.
The second-seeded Falcons were unfazed, though, unleashing a torrid 25-4 run from the mid third quarter to the first minute of the final canto, employing Franz Pumaren’s full court press which stymied the Maroons.
That was the penultimate run of the gallant Falcons as the Maroons got back with timely baskets from the erstwhile scoreless Jun Manzo and defensive stops from Desiderio.
The Falcons even fired six straight points in overtime to silence the predominantly Maroon crowd.
But Adamson was the first to suffer from weaker legs as Ahanmisi went out in the last minute with a knee injury while center Papi Sarr hardly had any lift for inside, as he was easily outrebounded by Akhuetie and Jerson Prado.
“These guys just refuse to give up. They were just too tired but when I saw the opponent that they are also tired, I knew this is going to be a grind out game,” Perasol remarked.
The Maroons will battle neighbors and defending champions Ateneo de Manila on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Falcons, meanwhile, crash out of contention after placing second in the regular season, losing their fourth straight final four game since Pumaren took over in 2016.
UP 89 – Ju. Gomez de Liano 30, Desiderio 18, Akhuetie 13, Ja. Gomes de Liano 8, Tungcab 6, Prado 6, Dario 5, Manzo 4, Jaboneta 1, Vito 0, Lim 0
Adamson 87 – Ahanmisi 20, Lastimosa 17, Sarr 16, Camacho 10, Pingoy 7, Magbuhos 6, Manganti 6, Espeleta 2, Mojica 2, Bernardo 0
Quarter scores: 26-16, 51-42, 64-67, 78-78, 89-87 (OT)