Juan Gomez de Liaño was undoubtedly the hero for the UP Fighting Maroons after he buried the go-ahead triple against the De La Salle Green Archers on Wednesday.
He sent the UP faithful into a frenzy, not only because it was a stunning game-winner, but the shot represented that one of their main guys was finally back. After a quiet first five games in UAAP Season 82, the third-year swingman was seemingly back to his old self.
But heroes often hide their struggles and weaknesses from the spotlight.
Unbeknownst to many, Gomez de Liaño has been fighting a different battle since last summer as a number of injuries have slowed down the versatile player.
Throughout UP's offseason camps and tournaments, he revealed that he has yet to be at a hundred percent. He battled back spasms last April. When he finally felt healthy in the Fighting Maroons' trip in Las Vegas, he then hyper-extended his left knee in Japan. More recently, a right ankle sprain has continued to derail his progress. Aside from the various ailments in his body, everything has also taken a toll mentally. Just when he thinks he's close to his old self, a new injury forces him back to zero.
Even after his game against La Salle, Gomez de Liaño was visibly limping out of the MOA Arena, nursing a bad ankle, knee, and back.
"People don't know I've been really working hard to get back in shape, just to get my rhythm back," the 19-year-old said as he also mentioned that he now has jumper's knee, an inflammation that weakens the tendons.
"It was really tough for me. I was already like at my lowest point during the summer. I lost everything, that's what I felt, but I took it, you know, somehow positively."
In his first five games, he had been struggling to say the least. He's normed measly numbers of 5.2 points on 22.5 percent field goal shooting, including 4-for-28 from downtown. He even had a hard time in the other facets of his game, tallying just 5.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and committing two and a half turnovers in only 22 minutes of play.
Aside from the grind of participating in UP's daily practices, he has also put a tremendous amount of focus and time in rehab and getting back into shape. He takes the long drive to Peak Form, a performance and sports medicine sports center in Taguig, for his nagging injuries.
Gomez de Liaño wasn't even sure he would finish the game versus the Green Archers.
"I just forced it. Our therapist, coach Grace (Siongco), she assessed me. I had my ankle taped. I was really in pain but I really wanted to go back, to help my teammates in whatever way I can help, and just to not let the UP community down," he said. "I'm glad I really had the guts to go back because I was really scared to make it worse. The whole summer I was really injured. So I'm glad I took the chance to go back to help my teammates."
Gomez de Liaño's biggest asset for UP is probably not just his 3-point shooting, his passing, or his playmaking ability. For the Fighting Maroons that have an abundance of talent, compiled with new players fitting into new roles, he provides experience and leadership. After he knocked down the triple against La Salle, the first thing he did was to calm his teammates down. He hardly celebrated as he reminded his squad there was still 7.8 seconds left.
"It was really nice because we had the lead but then I told my teammates, 'You guys, there's still time,' he said on his game-winner, thinking that UP might endure a heartbreak similar to the NU Bulldogs.
"I just told them to relax, you know, there's still time, they might beat us. Good thing we stayed composed all throughout the game."
Juan Gomez de Liaño was the hero and fearless leader for the UP Fighting Maroons on Wednesday. After undergoing the lowest point of his young career, he finally had his signature moment of the season.
"I've faced so many injuries in the past five months. I've just been focusing on my rehab. So I'm really thankful to my team even though I've been struggling they still have the trust in me," he said. "I've really been working hard in the offseason. I feel like I'm good for these kinds of moments."