Paul Desiderio's sacrifice pays off for UP community

As soon as history was made and the game clock read zero, Paul Desiderio waved his towel in front of a delirious UP crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The Fighting Maroons' fearless leader was overjoyed of what he and his team achieved on Wednesday night, punching a ticket to the UAAP Final Four for the first time since 1997. UP played with a sense of purpose and determination as it dominated the De La Salle Green Archers to claim the third seed.

And for Desiderio, the moment was particularly special since he pondered with the idea of leaving the school prior to this season to pursue his dream of playing pro.

"I sacrificed in my last year. I thought about whether or not I should come back," he admitted.

Desiderio began his career in UP in Season 76 as a wide-eyed scorer coming out of Cebu. In his rookie year, the Fighting Maroons failed to win a single game, their third winless season in a span of seven years. He skipped the following season to focus on his studies but returned in Season 78. His slow rise to stardom coincided with the arrival of coach Bo Perasol.

In the next two years, Desiderio and the Fighting Maroons inched their way to a Final Four berth and into relevance. They fell short in Season 80 but it was Desiderio's coming out party. He became the team's unequivocal leader, complete with late-game heroics and a mantra to lean on.

After playing for four seasons, the prolific scorer could have called it quits. His name recall to fans was the highest as it was ever been, giving him a chance in the 2017 PBA draft. But he stayed and believed UP was destined for greatness.

"I really sacrificed when I returned," the 21-year-old shared. "My personal goal, I sacrificed for the team. But it's worth it. I'm so happy."

Of course, Desiderio didn't return in a bed full of roses. The Fighting Maroons had their fair share of struggles throughout Season 81. They ended up as low as sixth in the standings with a 3-5 record as Desiderio himself had a shooting slump to begin the year. But they stuck together and won when it mattered most.

"You always have to stay positive," he said in Filipino. "We kept thinking to take it one game at a time."

After nearly leaving UP, Desiderio is now on the biggest stage of his collegiate career as he takes the Fighting Maroons to the Final Four.

"To start my career 0-14 then now I'm in the Final Four, it's been awesome. We even have a chance to enter the Finals," he said. "We even have a chance to become champions. We're still alive. UP is still alive."