The UP Fighting Maroons' fairytale season came to an end, but the team's inspiring story of redemption lives on.
Right after the buzzer sounded and confetti rained down to signal the Ateneo Blue Eagles' championship victory, UP head coach Bo Perasol gathered his players and urged them to hold their heads high amidst the deafening "UP Fight" chants.
Despite the lopsided outcome, thousands of fans clad in maroon stayed inside the Big Dome to applaud the efforts of the Fighting Maroons. They could have left when the game started slipping away, but the UP faithful decided to continue to cheer their hearts out no matter the score.
"I do not want you to look down, I want you to be proud because I want you to be proud of them and what you did. They are proud of you," an emotional Perasol told the team while pointing to the crowd. "We were in the finals, nobody expected us to be here. You achieved so much, you sacrificed so much. Do not look down, we will be better."
Despite absorbing a finals sweep and settling for a runner-up finish, the Fighting Maroons were still winners in the eyes of the UP community that was deprived of such feel-good basketball story in the last 32 years. Like a loving father to his kids, Perasol continuously reminded his team that they should be pleased with what they accomplished.
"I just told them that we cannot be focusing on what just happened," he said. "We have to focus on the whole season. We cannot be myopic in saying that we lost the game. Of course we lost, but all in all, we became a champion in our own rights."
The transformation from the Fighting Maroons to the "winning Maroons" has been completed, healing the heartbreaks of the winless dark ages in the process. With increased support from stakeholders and a new-found belief that they are capable of toppling any opponent, the players pulled off a magical run that towed them to the grandest stage. As this chapter of the story closes, the journey continues. Paul Desiderio, Diego Dario, Jarrell Lim, Gelo Vito, and JJ Española will graduate, but MVP Bright Akhuetie and Mythical team member Juan Gomez de Liaño will still be there at the forefront of their campaign. Superstars Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras are also set to enter the picture and make the team look even stronger next year.
Questions are being raised on how a star-studded roster can work smoothly together while utilizing each and every one's strengths. For Perasol, however, that's a rather good problem to have. After all, he was able to handle the challenge of having a three-headed monster in Desiderio, Akhuetie, and Gomez De Liaño this year. The coach believes that it would boil down to the willingness of the players to surrender themselves to the system, just like this special batch who embodied the "16 strong" mantra.
"I'm so excited about my prospects," said Perasol. "They just need to understand the goal of the team. It's not about them [but] what you can help to accomplish the goal. It's not about Ricci, Kobe, or Bright, it's about the team. It's about '16 strong', that's why we've accomplished where we are."
The Fighting Maroons proved that they belong in the company of the league's top contenders, and after overachieving this season, Perasol knows that the UP community will expect nothing less than a second straight finals appearance in Season 82.
"If the expectations are high now, how much more is it gonna be?" he asked. "It's gonna be the finals now, not the Final Four. It's gonna be the finals when we go back."