The UP Fighting Maroons of University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 81 held a long overdue reunion on July 17, 2020 and hopped on a Zoom call for a virtual party. The team’s head coach Bo Perasol attended the get-together dubbed “Zoomustahan with UAAP Season 81 UPMBT” initially along with 12 players.
The players were Paul Desiderio, Bright Akhuetie, Jun Manzo, Juan Gomez de Liaño, Javi Gomez de Liaño, Diego Dario, Jarrell Lim, Gelo Vito, Janjan Jaboneta, Will Gozum, Pio Longa, Jaydee Tungcab and JJ Española. Desiderio was the team’s captain in UAAP Season 81 and Akhuetie was the MVP of the season.
UAAP Season 80’s UP courtside reporter Agatha Uvero and “Nowhere To Go But UP: How a Basketball Team Inspired a Nation” author Naveen Ganglani hosted the event that was aired on Facebook Live so the fans and the public could join the reunion. The giddy group recalled their favorite memories of the UP Men’s Basketball Team’s incredible run in 2018, exchanged updates on what they have been doing during the quarantine, revealed behind-the-scenes thoughts and conversations of Season 81 and uncorked a few secrets that still surprised many.
Desiderio jokingly recounted how much of a challenge it was to lead his team that year but how his fellow seniors Dario, Lim and Vito shared the load and made the job easier. The boys recalled special moments like that classic inbound pass from Juan that Akhuetie caught at the precise moment and laid up for the winning points while Desiderio fought tooth and nail to get Papi Sarr out of his defensive position.
That shot opened the gates for the Maroons’ first real ticket to the Finals as it erased the Adamson Falcons’ twice-to-beat advantage and put them at par with Adamson in a knock-out game for a Finals seat. Desiderio said, “That was a classic.”
“There was no way to rehearse that the way it happened even if it was a play that was designed by Coach Ronnie (Magsanoc) at practice,” Desiderio continued. “Nobody could have prepared for the way it was executed. That’s why we still talk about it today.”
But prior to that blistering Final Four run that began when the Maroons played a masterful game against La Salle that catapulted them into the Final Four for the first time in 21 years, the Maroons were floundering and being inconsistent. From heady conquests of some teams, they would succumb to teams they could easily beat.
Most glaring was a Second Round game against UE where they were whipped by the Wartriors in the first half. Lim recalled the moment saying, “There was a game against UE where Coach Bo got really mad.”
“We knew we could win that game easily but we were playing badly,” Lim continued. “In the dugout, Coach Bo said something that really scared us. He said, ‘If we lose this game, I’m going to resign.’”
“That was a wake-up call for us,” Lim added. “That was the turning point. That was when we really talked to each other as teammates and we began to take things more seriously.”
The Maroons saved the day with a decisive win over the Red Warriors in the second half. From that point onwards, they never looked back.
“Nag-usap kaming mga seniors (We seniors had a conversation),” Dario shared. “I think losing record kami non (I think we were on a losing record that time). We said, ‘We can’t let this happen kasi ito na ‘yong last year namin (because this is our last year).’ “Naisip namin (We decided) to talk to the coaches and we all got our acts together.”
Still there was talk that UP got to the finals because they were simply lucky. Perasol dismissed that impression without hesitation.
“Hindi ka naman mananalo nang magic lang, na walang galing (You will not win just by magic, without skills),” Perasol said. “Even if you keep on fighting, if you do not have the set of skills to match up with one other, ang hirap (it will be hard). Hindi makakaya yon (That will be unattainable).”
“There were a lot of times in UP history na puro laban lang (that there were nothing but fights),” the coach continued. “Hindi mo matatawaran ang laban ng mga taga-UP (You cannot beat the fights of those from UP) but this bunch of guys, hindi sila puro lumaban lang (they are not only there to fight). You have to consider the skill level of these guys.”
The UP Men’s Basketball Team (UPMBT) made history in UAAP Season 81 by breaking their 21-year Final Four drought and making it to the Finals for the first time after 32 years. There was a lot of light-hearted ribbing and teasing among the reuniting Maroons as they pointed out Akhuetie’s incredible appetite for Crispy Pata and determined who had the biggest appetite at dinners and parties namely Javi, Gozum and Longa and who was the peskiest one.
Gozum has since joined the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde. Still very comfortable with each other, the players were not beyond asking him to go back to UP “habang may pandemic pa (while the pandemic is still ongoing).”
Later in the reunion, Season 82 teammate and Mythical Team member Kobe Paras and new recruit Malick Diouf also joined in the fun, conversing with their brothers rowdily and familiarly. UP basketball fans also had a chance to win prizes by answering trivia questions and joining a raffle that was part of the ZOOMustahan.
This is the second batch of Fighting Maroons to do a virtual get together during the quarantine period. In April 2020, members of the 2014 UPMBT, the team which rejoiced at ending a 27-game losing streak that prompted a controversial bonfire celebration, also had a Zoom call hosted by Fighting Maroon stalwart and game announcer Mikee Reyes.