Prior to the start of UAAP Season 81, UP coach Bo Perasol and his players made it clear that the Fighting Maroons are targeting a spot in the Final Four.
"We can't just be the Fighting Maroons, we have to be the winning Maroons," Perasol said back in August.
Three months later, the team fulfilled its promise. Over two decades' worth of frustrations came to an end as UP completed a stunning 97-81 victory over La Salle on Wednesday. It was a highly emotional moment that Perasol was not able to grasp until they raised their fists in triumph and sang the alma mater hymn post-match.
"When I looked at the huge scoreboard, there's an asterisk beside UP Maroons," he shared. "I teared up and asked myself, 'Is that real? Are we really included?' The asterisk says it all, that we're part of the Final Four cast and we're going to vie for it."
From sixth place in Season 79 to fifth place in Season 80, UP made it all the way to third seed this year. After 21 long years of getting booted out early, the Fighting Maroons finally found their way back to the Final Four.
When Perasol took over in 2016, he had to drastically transform a demoralized team that had been languishing at the bottom of the standings. The Fighting Maroons failed to earn a single win in 2007, then they had another pair of winless seasons for a total of only 13 victories in nine years.
In that span, players and fans alike lost confidence in the school's basketball program. Nobody in UP expected the team to win. The losing mentality was so prevalent among the community, but Perasol strived to change this mindset the moment he came in. Slowly but surely, the Fighting Maroons worked their way up.
"I really believe that a successful program or any successful team has to go through struggles in order for them to understand how to succeed," said Perasol. "I don't think that any winner won't be able to experience losing and struggles, because winning takes a lot from all of us. This is something that we need to do together."
It took a village to build a winning culture. The remarkable transformation did not happen overnight and Perasol acknowledged that the team could not have done it on its own. The community's overwhelming support enabled them to accomplish this feat.
"I'm sure that they are right now expressing their emotions, how happy they are - the community, the students," said Perasol. "I'm quite sure that they are delirious right now, thinking about this win. It's kind of a bragging right for us, that we belong, that we can compete, that if we put our heads into how we plan things, then we can achieve this."
Even the doubters gave the Fighting Maroons the motivation that they needed to continue pushing. Perasol cherished the harsh criticisms that came with higher expectations because this meant that they were doing something good to make people believe again.
"I said in my first year and my second year that I wanted them to expect a lot from us," he said. "I want them to pressure, I want them to push the team to excel. I mean, that's how the bigger programs are, like Ateneo, La Salle, FEU. So I'm just happy that we are with the community in sharing that kind of feeling right now."
Perasol had his own doubts, even coming to a point when he thought of giving up the coaching job. There were times when he asked himself if what he was doing was worth it, but he had to set aside his personal interests and encourage his players to do the same.
"This is about winning for the community and if I'm not effective as your leader, I have to step down," he told his team multiple times. "I have an obligation to the community if I'm not effective as your leader, I might as well step down and somebody else will step in because this is not about me."
"I have to be an example of confidence, I have to be an example of belief to what we have put in there," Perasol went on. "We're just human beings, we feel the pressure and there are moments of weakness. Everybody gets hurt but you need to go through that to achieve what you want."
After decades of heartbreak, it's safe to say now that the Fighting Maroons have turned into the winning Maroons. It doesn't mean that the losing will stop altogether. It just means that they will head into games believing that they are capable of toppling any opponent.
"In the struggle that we had, the kind of mindset that we had, we no longer have doubts," said Perasol. "This is just a point, this is a journey. You cannot go back to that kind of mindset because the danger right now, we are going to be overwhelmed by the feelings of this. But we deserve it, (we'll) let it sink in for the next couple of days then we get back into work again."
Once the celebration for this historic moment is over, UP needs to buckle down and prepare for its battle against the twice-to-beat Adamson in the semifinals. The Falcons got the upper hand in both of their elimination round games, but Perasol is confident that the Fighting Maroons will fight tooth and nail for another shot at history.
"We need to review our games against them, we need to review how we lost against them," he said. "This is basketball. We have a chance against them. We're not going to offer that in a silver platter to them, we're going to fight for that. Knowing these guys, they're going to find a way to figure out how we can win."