The UP Fighting Maroons will be going up against the FEU Tamaraws tomorrow afternoon, their second straight game where they will be fighting for separation in the standings, and against the team touted as the “heavily favored team” during the beginning of the standings.
This FEU squad is the same squad who won double-digit victories over ADMU and DLSU. And before we forget, this team has the next least rookies in the league, as well as the next most holdovers from last season, where they were runners up to the NU Bulldogs.
Guess which team they are second to in terms of least rookies and most holdovers?
Yes, to UP.
But what does that mean?
None so much really.
Because when these two teams take on each other tomorrow afternoon, the only thing that will matter is that by the end of the game, one team will be 3-1 (tied at first with Ateneo and UST), and the other will be 2-2.
As of this writing, the only team sporting a winless record is Adamson University. The NU Bulldogs finally earned a victory, and in convincing fashion as they defeated the previously unblemished Growling Tigers. Just a couple of days ago, the standings were quite unfamiliar to many who are not used to seeing teams like Ateneo, NU at the bottom, and UP at the top.
Now, things seem to be back to normal.
Unless… the Maroons have a different agenda.
A win by UP tomorrow will bring them a more secure spot on the top half of the rankings, together with UST and Ateneo. After the Tamaraws, the Maroons will be tackling Adamson, NU and Ateneo. UP will only need one win out of those three for the Maroons to end the first half with a winning record of 4-3. The last time the Maroons had such a record ending the first half was… Anybody old enough to remember when?
But before we get ahead of ourselves with the possibilities, first things first.
It’s not really a question of whether the Maroons can or cannot defeat the Tams. They showed in their last three games that they can. Beating a UE team that is now 2-1 also in the standings and riding on the heroics of rookie Edson Batiller, a Jeron-Teng led DLSU squad that boasts of landing prospective ROY Andrei Caracut, and giving the league-leading Tigers a scare during their previous tiff, the Maroons are capable of upsetting the heavily favored Tams.
The question is… How?
Head coach Rensy Bajar gave his boys 24 hours after their loss to lament their defeat to UST.
That was a week ago.
For sure, the Maroons’ lead tactician have already laid out his game plan to his ballers. They must have burned hours of practice time to simulate all the possible scenarios when they take the Morayta squad on the floor tomorrow. Each of the guys who will suit up for battle tomorrow have all their work cut out already by tomorrow. They must have done a checklist of sorts on what to do with who, on such and such a moment of the game.
But the sketches on the drawing board and the stench of your opponent on the open court are two different things. When the Diliman squad steps on the battle field tomorrow afternoon, they will have to set aside thoughts about the other three games ahead of them. They will have to ignore the possibility of getting into that press conference after sealing a victory. They will have to stop imagining how the headlines will be on Monday in all the sports columns of the broadsheets and tabloids. And they will have to tear into pieces anything “on paper” about the FEU’s team.
When the play ball tomorrow, what they have in front of them is an opponent that must be defeated.
But if there’s one thing the UP Fighting Maroons can put their minds into when they take on the FEU Tamaraws, it is this…
…this game is a chance at legitimacy for them.
That’s simply all there is to it.
Not the same, but still the same.
There are many things that can be said about the 67-59 loss of the UP Fighting Maroons to the UST Growling Tigers yesterday afternoon at the MOA Arena.
For sure, it can be said that the Maroons showed the “fighting” spirit that they carried in their name. They were able to capture the lead in the game once, 27-25, after trailing by as many as 11 in the third quarter.
Still, they lost.
Not only did they show they can take the lead at any point of the game coming from a deficit, but they showed that many times. They tied the game at 37 all in the third, and closed to within three points going into the fourth quarter. Two minutes left in the ballgame, UP had threatened within three, 57-54.
Still, they lost.
This was a breakout game for the up and coming stars of the UP. Diego “Legend” Dario, the sophomore Batang Gilas guard, frontlined the Maroons squad with 15 points, while fellow RP Youth teammate Paul Desiderio had 12 markers. The game showcased the arsenal of these 2nd year playmakers that will surely be integral pieces for UP’s road to redemption in the years to come.
Still, they lost.
Coach Rensy Bajar and his coaching staff showed that they can adjust to any type of play that the opponent can run. They were quick to know which players to field in whenever the other team made necessary changes. Looking at how UP answered UST’s rallies proved that the Maroons are now playing smarter basketball than before.
Still, they lost.
Down by just two points ending the third quarter 42-40, the Maroons soon felt the full display of Ed Daquioag’s weapons, who led all scorers with 26 points. But instead of cowering and whimpering away from the battle, the Maroons went toe to toe with the King Tiger. The Tigers, despite the offensive frenzy of Daquioag and Kevin Ferrer, could not shrug off the Maroons’ pesky defense, which forced turnovers, on which UP capitalized and got good points to slowly shave off UST’s lead to bring the game to a close duel.
Still, they lost.
Comparing the way the UP Fighting Maroons lost to the UST Growling Tigers last Saturday to they way they would usually bow out of a game, one cannot help but notice a big and significant improvement in the way the Maroons fought. The defense has been key to them preventing their opponents from goring them up to bits by big leads, as well as dousing any hot fire of runs that their foes wage. Despite the sterling performances of their opponents’ key offensive stars, they were able to limit others from adding more points, such as Karim Abdul and Louie Vigil. If in the past the Maroons could not even recover from a 10-point lead by their opponent all throughout the game, this time they showed that they can give their enemies a run for their money. UP has shown that now they can answer back every volley of shot by their enemies, stand their ground on defense, and keep the game close until the dying seconds, unlike in the past seasons when everyone can predict the ending of their games as a foregone conclusion.
Yes, the way the Maroons lost this time around is not the same as before.
Still, they lost.
And no matter what explanations we offer, a loss is still a loss.
The challenge is to move on, regroup, recover, and continue fighting. And the UP Fighting Maroons will have plenty of room to adjust whatever they need to get that third win. They have a couple of days in their hands to prepare themselves for the fray, scout their next target, get their minds into the game and focus on the task at hand. And the last thing they should do is to feel “ok” about the loss.
Because a loss is a loss no matter how good the game was played, just as a win is a win no matter how sloppy it was earned.
Not the same. But still the same.
Last year, the UP Fighting Maroons lit up a bonfire at the Sunken Garden in celebration of their first win of the season, courtesy of the Adamson Falcons.
That was also their last win of the season.
Yesterday, the Maroons won their second game of the season, their first 2-0 record since ’05, their first back-to-back win since ’06, and their first win against La Salle since ’09.
So far, no one’s even lighting a match stick.
Which is GOOD, actually!
If the UP Fighting Maroons, and the community of their supporters, want to write their own history this season 78 of the UAAP, they will have to contend with something greater than the seven other schools of the league.
The culture of mediocrity.
Having lost all but four games in as many previous seasons, the Maroons have come to a point where a lone win for the season was so big a deal, it deserved a bonfire celebration. Not that the intentions behind the celebrations were wrong, but consider the fact that it was sending the wrong message–that it was okay to manage to get a single win against 13 losses, because for such an unfortunate bunch that has had to endure numerous winless seasons, avoiding a zero-fourteen record was quite an achievement already. Thus the impression that the goal wasn’t to win the entire season, but to simply win one for the entire season.
And why would not the Maroons’ followers settle for a lone victory? There was a season when the UP MBT flaunted the most intact, most veteran, and most polished line up in years. During that season, they have reached the three-year maturity period of the system their coach had set up and promised to finally deliver a Final Four appearance, the first since 1997. They even had the chance to train in the States that time. But even with all of that, not to mention the enormous support the team got from many sponsors as well, the Maroons kept on losing, fired their coach in the middle of the eliminations, brought in a champion coach from the pros, but still ended up unable to salvage the season, and eventually earning another winless season.
Questions popped up like mushrooms on a wet driftwood: What happened? Whose fault is it? Was it right to kick the coach out of the team? Does UP need a benefactor who will finance the rebuilding of the team? Did UP get jinxed?
Obviously these questions have no clear answers.
Out of nowhere a mindset sprang forth. It was then cultivated by the myriad of posts, comments, opinions (mine included) and articles written about that painful season. It didn’t take long before that mindset found its form in this statement…
“Manalo lang ang UP kahit isa, ok na!”
Well, there was really nothing wrong with wanting to win one game. But there’s something seriously wrong with wanting them to win JUST one game.
Whether some (not all, and surely not many) of UP’s followers are willing to admit the existence of this mindset or not, it is true. And the players themselves have voiced out their take about it.
“No, I am not ok with losing,” said new recruit Noah Webb. “When I came to UP, I heard people tell me ‘So you’re ok with losing?’ And I said ‘No, I am not ok with losing.'”
Team captain JR Gallarza also talked about their battle against mediocrity. “This season, we can’t just settle for one win and say ‘okay na yan, nakaisa na tayo.'” He also said that any plans of a bonfire will have to wait for when UP ultimately achieves their goal this season.
The goal? A final four appearance.
Now, hold your guns before you start shooting at new head coach Rensy Bajar for concocting the idea. It’s his own way of battling mediocrity.
“We have to believe that we can win. For years, guys have been entertaining the idea that one win is enough. That’s the culture we are trying to cure.
“I keep telling the guys that they must believe they can win. We keep on telling them that they can.”
So far, they have believed. And so far, they have won.
After defeating the UE Red Warriors on opening day 62-55, the Maroons pulled off a convincing 71-66 win over the DLSU Green Archers. For the first time in a decade, the Maroons have a spot on top of the standings with a 2-0 record, and for the first time in nine years, they won a back-to-back game.
And as of this writing, not a single firewood is being lit to start any small semblance of a bonfire to celebrate where UP is right now.
“We are hungry for more wins,” says the prodigal Maroon Jett Manuel, who led the charge in their recent vanquishing of the Taft-based ballers. “We are on a high right now, but we want more.”
For a team who’s been starving for a winning season, they will surely want more.
The closest they ever got to Final Four was in 2004 when they had a 7-7 record. That by far is UP’s best record of the elimination rounds in the last 18 years.
Right now, they have taken two games closer to their goal of taking a top four spot.
“That’s the ultimate goal right now… To have a spot in the final four this season,” according to Paul Desiderio, who is bringing with him his experience in the RP Youth Squad, along with Diego Dario.
Ten months ago, the Maroons were treated as bonus games for the other teams.
This time around, they are treated as threats.
The road to redemption is not easy, but it is not impossible either. The NU Bulldogs proved this last season when they won their first championship since half a century ago. And the guy at the helm of the Bulldogs is a Maroon himself, Eric Altamirano, who was part of the last UP Champion team of ’86, and the mentor of the UP squad that barged into the Final Four the last time in 1997. I’m sure looking from his vantage point as an opponent, he knows the boys from his alma mater are the hungriest in the league right now.
On Saturday, the Maroons will take on the UST Growling Tigers, who like them is on the top spot with a 2-0 record. The Espana ballers handed the heavily favored FEU Tamaraws their first defeat, 72-71. Once again the odds are seen to be against the Maroons on this game. The triumverate of Ed Daquioag, Kevin Ferrer and Karim Abdul are as dangerous a threat as one will ever encounter. By the end of their match, one team will emerge on top, while the other will be on the second spot.
By now you must be hearing statements like “O naka-dalawa na ang UP! For sure matatalo na yan sa USTe!” Or “Pag natalo UP sa Sabado, back to reality na tayo, guys.”
The coaching staff and players of the UP Fighting Maroons will not have any of those kind of banters. Their mind is set on one thing–nothing less than a win. And for the Maroons to keep on winning against their opponents, they will have to first defeat their own sense of mediocrity about themselves. Because a true giant slayer would never say “They’re too big to hit.” but rather “They’re too big to miss!”
If all things go well, UP will find its way back to the top half of the standings after 18 years, and a second championship after 29 years.
Until then, the bonfire will have to wait.