“UP Fight!,” someone screamed in the middle of the Sunken Garden and multiple voices would answer likewise. This exemplifies the joy and relief the University of the Philippines (UP) Community felt after getting into the Finals series of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Men’s Basketball. Devoted fans and students alike showed immense support for the team that pushed their way through to the top. Mall of Asia Arena or Smart Araneta Coliseum, the venue did not matter as a sea of Maroon was always present and ready to join the battle using their deafening voices.

For 32 years, the Fighting Maroons have been in the dark, year after year fighting for a shot at the Men’s Basketball Championship. Once upon a time, they were a strong contender throughout the UAAP. In multiple eras of glory and success, Fighting Maroons squads of old featured future PBA hall of famers, basketball legends, and revered fan favorites, such as Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, Eric Altamirano, Paolo Mendoza, and Marvin Cruz.

After the breakthrough season of 1986, the Fighting Maroons’ success had been followed by a tumultuous period of mistrials and failure. The drought had lasted for far too long and supporters looked for the smallest drop of hope. At one point, a bonfire was held for a single win after a winless season. Although it was a call for celebration, it was clear that the standard for success had changed drastically over the years.  

PHOTO: Joaquin Arriola

In recent years, success seemed within reach. Last season, fans were filled with excitement at the prospect of a young man, who had been crowned the UAAP Junior’s division MVP, representing the colors that he had so proudly worn in high school. This young man’s name is Juan Gomez de Liano. Despite the arrival of Juan and the emergence of team captain Paul Desiderio as a superstar, the Fighting Maroons still fell short of the Final Four.

Season 81 MVP Bright Akhuetie and last season’s Rookie of the Year Juan Gomez de Liano joins the Mythical Five. PHOTO: Joaquin Arriola

Come Season 81, another buzz of anticipation filled the air. Players spent the off season improving themselves through rigorous training and intense preparation. Before becoming iconic with phrase, “Atin ‘to”, Paul Desiderio already gained valuable experience through his active participation in the Gilas Pilipinas program. With new additions, key returns, and the much anticipated debut of former NCAA Seniors’ MVP Bright Akhuetie, the team seemed ready for battle. It was time to test their mettle on the biggest stage in Philippine amateur basketball.

After revitalizing the basketball culture within the University and overcoming various struggles throughout the season, the Fighting Maroons had returned to prominence. It had been decades since they last graced the hardcourt of the UAAP finals, but they were finally back. Although they had lost the opening game and were facing a do-or-die matchup against defending champions Ateneo de Manila University, it was an obstacle that was not unfamiliar. On their way back to the top, the Fighting Maroons had overcome unfavorable circumstances and defeated the Adamson Soaring Falcons, despite their twice-to-beat advantage.

SEA OF MAROON. King Maroon Paul Desiderio’s dream of filling the arena with UP fans was fulfilled with a jam-packed Araneta Coliseum showing their support to its basketball team on his final game in UP uniform. PHOTO: Joaquin Arriola

With spotlights shining and pressure mounting, the community came to cheer for the newest iteration of the Fighting Maroons in Smart Araneta Coliseum. With their backs against the wall, the team continued to give it their all. Throughout the battle, Ateneo seemed to dominate, but the UP Fighting Maroons stood tall. With each glimmer, chance, and possibility of victory slowly slipping away, the UP faithful remained vigorous and fierce. Fans bolstered banners and relentlessly cried, “Atin ‘to!”

In the dying minutes of the 4th quarter, Coach Bo Perasol subbed in all his senior players to sing their swan song. With the loyal crowd’s undying support, the once again great Fighting Maroons bowed out and conceded victory.  

Graduating members of the basketball team. From left to right: Gelo Vito, Jarell Lim, Diego Dario, JJ Espanola, and Paul Desiderio. PHOTO: Joaquin Arriola

The pride of UP’s athletic program does not end there. Achievements by the Track and Field Varsity made headlines as both the Men’s and Women’s division snatched gold and silver medals respectively. Noteworthy is the Badminton Varsity as well as both divisions placed runner-up in the league. Proving that UP can fight and win on land and water, the Women’s Swimming team made waves as they reached the finish line in second place and the Women’s Beach Volleyball team spiked their way to third. Meanwhile, the Women’s Table Tennis team rallied until they obtained bronze and the Poomsae (Taekwondo) Co-ed team acquired the same. Engaging in a battle of wit and strategy, the Women’s Chess team fought their way into second place. Finally, the UP Men’s and Women’s Judo team won bronze and silver medals respectively. However, it does not end there! The UAAP Season 81 will continue with sports such as Volleyball, Tennis, Baseball (Men), Softball (Women), and Football as they battle it out in 2019. Continue supporting the University’s student athletes as they wear Maroon with honor and excellence.

December 5 will always be a bittersweet chapter in the long and storied history of UP. Some may remember it as a lost chance, but instead it should be remembered as a glorious return from obscurity. The prayers have been answered, the drought has ended, and the UP Fighting Maroons are back. Just like Coach Bo Perasol said to all of his players in his inspirational speech after the game, “You need to be proud of yourselves, we were in the finals. Nobody expected us to be here. You achieved so much. You sacrificed so much. That’s why they’re here, okay? So, do not look down. We will be better.” Gone are the days of doubt as we welcome a brighter and better beginning. This will forever be remembered as the meteoric rise and euphoric return of UP.

Desiderio receives a hug from his parents right after the game. PHOTO: Joaquin Arriola

Let us not forget those who have sacrificed for our way back to glory. Those who have continued to persevere in the toughest of times and lowest of lows. When we return to battle next year, some of our best will no longer be on the team. To our seniors, thank you for inspiring and showing the community how to believe once more. Atin ‘to! ■ 

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