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After failed finals bid, uncertainty looms for UP Fighting Maroons

There is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the University of the Philippines after its unsuccessful UAAP Season 82 campaign.

Instead of a return to the finals, the Fighting Maroons failed to solve the puzzle that was the University of Santo Tomas, falling short after Wednesday's knockout game -- their fourth loss to the Growling Tigers this season.

The Fighting Maroons' exuberant celebration after notching the second seed and gaining a twice-to-beat advantage seemed all but a distant memory as they were eliminated in emphatic fashion. And now, the team faces more questions than answers.

For starters, there is a probability that coach Bo Perasol won't return next season.

"It is always in my mind on how are we going to move forward after this because we've put a ceiling over our heads," Perasol said. "And my intention always is our program shouldn't be personality-based meaning that anybody is going to lead this should be able to start from where we have left.

"That is very important because the success of any program is going to be proven by whoever takes over. I think it is just important that we have to test that. Meaning we have to test the strength of our program not because I'm here or my management is here, but because the program is already there. Whoever takes over is going to be blessed with a program that can compete with anybody."

Perasol went on to clarify that as far as UP is concerned, coaches don't get contracts, but are appointed on a year-to-year basis. Though he has yet to discuss his role moving forward with the school's administration and management, he is confident that the basketball program will continue where it left off, regardless if he stays on board.

"It doesn't matter really who's going to lead, whether I'm going to be here or not, the most important part of this is our program," he added, mentioning that strong programs like Ateneo and La Salle remain in contention regardless of who calls the shots from the sidelines.

Under Perasol, the Fighting Maroons gradually increased their win total every year. From five wins in his first season back in 2016 and six the following year, UP finally made it to the Final Four in Season 81 and even went all the way to the finals. This year, they notched nine wins and clinched the second seed - a first in the school's history. Prior to Perasol's arrival was a near decade long of disappointment, including three winless seasons. There is no doubt that the program has grown by leaps and bounds over the past four years.

But UP's Season 82 campaign was filled with high expectations and a ton of pressure after recruiting two exceptional talents over the summer in the hopes of not only recapturing the magic of last season, but more so to finally win the UAAP title that has eluded the school since 1986. After the stars aligned for UP this season, there is suspicion that they might have to go their separate ways.

Juan Gomez de Liaño, alongside his older brother Javi, admitted that they were thinking about the future of their careers.

After Wednesday's game, Juan tweeted that he'll "always cherish the past 7 years in my beloved Alma Mater. Definitely been the best ever." When asked to expound on his social media post, he simply said he was feeling grateful and thinking about the future.

"It's been a tough season not just for me, but the whole team," Juan, who battled through numerous injuries since the offseason, explained. "Expectations were high and we fell short. We couldn't prove the haters wrong, but I'm just thankful just to be part of this family. Through ups and downs, so much went on in the season. I'm just glad we stayed together all throughout."

As for Javi, he admitted that he's still undecided whether or not he should return to UP.

"I'm gonna take the next month to decide. I'm still thinking if I'm gonna join the PBA Draft," Javi said. "I'll still have to ask guidance. That's an option. Another option is if I get a good offer in MPBL. And of course, I can also play my final year in UP. That will always be an option."

Akhuetie, meanwhile, hinted that he's merely hoping for a third season with the Fighting Maroons.

"Fingers crossed. Let's see," he said. "We just got out of this one now. Let's go chill and unwind before we start talking about next season."

Aside from the three, UP will lose Jun Manzo, Janjan Jaboneta, Jaydee Tungcab, Jaybie Mantilla, Jerson Prado, and Pio Longa to graduation.

"If I am going to choose a team again, I wouldn't hesitate to take them back. These are character guys, these are the guys that I'm going to remember that is part of your team," Perasol said about his graduating players.

Incorporating stars Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero to a team already consisting of last season's MVP Akhuetie and Mythical Five member Juan Gomez de Liaño was an extremely tall order. The talent-laden roster had its moments throughout the season, but sustaining cohesion and high-level of play was like catching lightning in a bottle.

"It wasn't easy-sailing for us. Mostly it's not because we lacked the talent, but because we needed to sacrifice and everybody admitted that earlier. We needed to sacrifice our egos a lot. We sacrificed a lot," Perasol said.

Juan, for instance, had to take a backseat for UP this season. He was plagued with injuries all-year long, but even if he was at full strength, he still needed to adjust his game to assimilate his new co-stars.

"Juan, he sacrificed a lot. You know, coming from a season that he was a star, he was in the limelight, and all of a sudden there came Ricci, there came Kobe, and he was just put on the sideline," Perasol pointed out. "It's difficult. That was difficult and I could see his struggle. But he was able to accept that. Not early on because we had struggles also even during the season. But he eventually acceded to the fact that for us to be able to win games and be able to be in our position, he needs to sacrifice himself, just like how Paul (Desiderio) had sacrificed himself last season."

Paras also did his best in putting his teammates first before himself. During Wednesday's do-or-die game, he was hampered with early foul trouble. Instead of forcing himself back, the second-generation star assured his coach that we was fine on the bench.

"That's why I was very emotional earlier because even Kobe during the game was telling me, 'Coach, let them play. Don't think about me,'" recalled Perasol. "Before, Kobe, if you bench him, he'll throw a tantrum, but earlier he was telling me 'Coach, don't mind me. We are going to fight this through with or without me.'"

Despite its best effort in an up and down season, UP is now walking on thin ice after Renzo Subido's fearless 3-pointer sent UST to the finals.

"We need to think things through as far as our program is concerned, we'll definitely take a break because it's exam week a few weeks from now for UP. It's the end of the semester and we'll take it from there," Perasol said.

There are positives to look at, of course, considering the program's vast improvement over the last four years, but the Fighting Maroons are at a crossroads and will have to figure out where they are headed.

"I don't think that there's something that went wrong in our campaign. There were bad breaks. It's just that. If we have won that game seconds ago, no one's going to ask me about the future of the team," Perasol said. "The last two years, we've been in the Final Four. I mean next year, we should be in the Final Four. We were in the top 2, that's the highest that we have achieved since this format was made. I think that in itself was an achievement for us. It's just that we were not able to push through. It happens. So we don't deal with what went wrong. We deal with what went right for us.

"In hindsight, I wanted everyone to see what we achieved in the last four years. They have to appreciate it because it has to move on. But I also want them to challenge everybody because it's important that we see that. I have to make a decision also in my direction personally and the direction of the team. Whatever it is, I wanted this program to start from where we ended up, not start from the bottom again. We need to start from the top."