Prized center Bright Akhuetie made his much-awaited UAAP debut on Saturday as the UP Fighting Maroons cruised to a 29-point win over the UE Red Warriors.
Ever since Akhuetie left the University of Perpetual Help Altas for the Fighting Maroons two years ago, he carried with him lofty expectations. He was a two-time NCAA Mythical Team selection who established himself as one of the top players in the collegiate scene. His talent and skill are supposed to satisfy a school that is hungry for success.
On Saturday, the 6-foot-7 big man met those expectations after posting 15 points and 18 rebounds, and more importantly, a victory.
"We can't really get too excited right now," Akhuetie said after UP's win. "It's just the first game so we just have to go back and work hard. And see how far we go."
Akhuetie tried to downplay his debut and reentry into the collegiate basketball scene by sticking to what he does best: play basketball.
"UAAP is really big, you can tell from the arena and the crowd you can tell it's really big, but it's still the same basketball," the Nigerian center said.
"It's the same basketball I just conditioned myself. I just told myself 'Go out there and play.' It's the same basketball," he added.
For him, it wasn't about posting huge numbers or making a statement win for UP right from the get-go. After more than a year of not competing in a big tournament, there was a sense of relief that he was finally able to play the game he loves.
"Yeah thank God I finally got to play," he gushed. "Right now I just have to get used to the process of getting back and playing hard."
Akhuetie's slow transition back to playing competitive basketball will be put to an early test as UP will take on the defending champions Ateneo Blue Eagles on Wednesday. Fittingly, it will also be Akhuetie's 22nd birthday that day.
"I trust my coaches, we're just gonna go back and prepare. I want them to give me a birthday gift which is a win on Wednesday," he said with a smile.
For Akhuetie, he wasn't thinking about the hype or the expectations surrounding him in his first UAAP game. Plus, he doesn't seem particularly worried that he has to single-handedly turn around the fortunes of a school that hasn't been in the Final Four for two decades. For now at least, he's happy to be back and he's hungry for more.