Finals Week

(written Nov. 29, 2018)

This year in UP, at least for one semester, “Finals week” has two different meanings: Utak and Puso. Mind and heart.

One in the classroom. And for the first time in 32 years, one in the basketball court.

Even before the Final Four round started, I already thought that if this will be a two-game series, Adamson has a weapon which any team in the UAAP would want to have: Franz Pumaren, one of the best tacticians in the game, who has previously led the De La Salle University to five Men’s Basketball championships including a four-peat from 1998 to 2001.

He is the perfect representation of utak, being the Adamson’s think-tank, making adjustments and strategies before, during, and after a game. His championships speak to his coaching acumen. His full-court pressure defense is feared across all schools. I said to myself that if this becomes a close series, to be decided by adjustments made, the edge belongs to Adamson.

Game 2 began the same way Game 1 did, with UP taking the early lead, continuing all the way to the third quarter. UP’s lead peaked at 16 points.

And then just like the first meeting between them in the first round of the tournament, as well as the first game of the playoff series, the Falcons clawed back. Their shots started to fall. The Maroons stopped converting baskets. League MVP Bright Akhuetie was not his usual effective self, turning the ball over possession after possession after painful possession, for a total of six turnovers. Then other Maroons joined in the turnover-fest. To make matters worse, UP missed free throw after free throw. Slowly, the 16-point lead was trimmed. Adamson eventually took the lead – and the momentum – into the fourth quarter.

Utak played a factor. Adamson’s Jerom Lastimosa and Jerick Ahanmisi started dropping threes. Their defense clamped down. UP made several bad decisions. Utak failed. Akhuetie drives to the basket and decides to pass the ball out instead of trying to convert a layup or draw the foul, only to fire a weak and easily pilferable pass? Utak. Leaving Adamson’s shooters open from three-point range, despite the shooter having the hot hand? Utak. Missed free throws? Utak.

All these mental mistakes, when added together, would have been fatal.

But UP is not defined by utak alone. Remember: Utak. Puso.

A human person who is brain dead is still alive because the person’s heart continues pumping blood for the body, providing oxygen to all its parts.

Without puso, that body is as good as dead.

In the second Final Four thriller against Adamson, UP would almost certainly have lost with all the utak mistakes. But puso, lots and lots of heart, hustle, grit, and determination, propelled them forward.

When Adamson cut into the 16-point UP lead and made it a close one, the Maroons’ defense did its job. An Adamson player blew by his defender for the layup? The next line of UP defenders would be there to force a tough shot. Puso.

Jun Manzo, the smallest guy on the court, jumping for the rebound in the midst of Adamson big men and – improbably – grabbing the ball or tipping it to his nearest teammate? Puso. Manzo coming up with a crucial steal and fastbreak layup late in the game? Puso.

Paul Desiderio stripping the ball away from Sean Manganti to prevent an easy layup, and diving for the ball? Puso.The same Desiderio in overtime, with the desire to go to the Finals, again diving for a loose ball – which got loose in the first place because Jaydee Tungcab stripped it from Ahanmisi – causing the ball to ricochet off Simon Camacho? Puso.

Akhuetie, pulling down a huge offensive rebound for the putback, coming up big in the clutch? Puso.

Desiderio, shooting 2-for-18 from the field, hitting a clutch go-ahead triple and the game-winning jumper in overtime? Puso.

Perhaps the best showing of puso? Overcoming Adamson’s twice-to-beat advantage to advance to the finals.

When the Falcons erased the deficit they were in, I remembered Game 1, as well as the very first meeting between the two teams in Season 81. Yesterday, in the most important game of the year for UP, utak and puso played big roles: when utak failed, puso remained. And just when it was needed most in that frantic finish, the mental toughness returned.

And these spelled all the difference between the Maroons going to two Finals, instead of one.

Utak. Puso.