As the final seconds ticked away, University of the Philippines star Jett Manuel broke down at centercourt as the sizeable Fighting Maroons crowd rose on its feet and offered him an adulation befitting a true hero.
Sure, the 6-foot-2 Manuel failed to steer UP to where it wants to be. But he has certainly done enough—more than what most expected of him—to bring the Fighting Maroons back to relevance in the UAAP men’s basketball tourney.
“Overwhelming lang to think na it’s all over na especially for me. Paano ba?” Manuel said, trying to overcome his emotions, following their 67-80 loss to University of the East on Sunday that put an anti-climactic finish to what could be a fitting ending to UP’s feel-good showing in Season 79.
While he struggled from the field against the Red Warriors, Manuel still finished with a game-high tying 13 points on top of seven rebounds and a steal as the Fighting Maroons closed out their initial campaign under coach Bo Perasol with a 5-9 mark—the school’s best since 2005.
The way the Fighting Maroons made a strong run in the second round and put themselves in contention for a Final For berth is enough for Manuel to be convinced that they have overachieved.
“If someone were to tell me at the start of the season na UP will have five wins, two losses, three losses in the second round and have a shot at the Final Four even at the dying games of the season, I think I’ll just look at you and laugh,” he said with a smile.
“Because you know, going through five years with the program na sobrang gulo, we’ve had winless seasons.”
Not this time, however. In the course of their newfound confidence, the Fighting Maroons strung up big victories over Final 4-bound teams Ateneo and Adamson while also ending a pair of long losing skids against National U and University of Santo Tomas.
Perasol and UP have certainly silenced their critics—and even turned some of them into its new “Bo-lievers.”
“This season meant so much for me because we came together when people least expected it. We came into the season, I don’t think we were connected pa, but I’m happy to see na we’re like a family na talaga. I’m just really thankful for all the support that my teammates have given me and my fellow seniors,” said Manuel.
Their willingness to start a winning culture for UP, which has been on a long struggle since winning its first—and only—UAAP men’s cage title in 1986, has certainly brought the best out from the Fighting Maroons.
“We came in on the agreement na we had to start from somewhere,” said Manuel.
“For the past seasons, we’ve been telling people na it’s a process, we’re gonna win. This is the first season na it actually came to life. So I’m sure that we started something and I’m hoping na under coach Bo’s leadership, the program will continue to get better because that’s what we came in to do.”
Individually, Manuel has showcased what he’s capable of and the ever-faithful UP crowd certainly took notice of it.
“Midway through the fourth, I was already getting emotional looking at the UP crowd. It was something to take away from the season,” he said.
“We’re sad that it didn’t end up the way we wanted, with a win but that’s basketball. I’m always gonna look at it na thankful na lang ako for all the blessings that we’ve gotten this season. And just look at it from that perspective na lang.”
While he, Dave Moralde and Henri Asilum have taken their final tour of duty with UP, Manuel is convinced the Fighting Maroons will be a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s looking bright naman because like you said there are players now that are young and they still have at least two years left to play, and they experienced this start,” he stressed, adding a new set of leaders among the Fighting Maroons will emerge.
“We were majority of the voices of the team, and now that we’re gone, I hope more leaders will step up, especially the ones that experienced this culture and are staying. I’m confident also that because of what we showed this season, it will be easier for the management to get recruits to come in to UP, to know that there’s a future in the program that we’re building. Who knows, maybe in a couple of years from now, we’re gonna be watching na lang.”
If the Fighting Maroons can enjoy continued support from team management, making it to the Final Four is a realistic goal.
“Maganda ang program na nasimulan ni coach Bo. I hope that the support, and the direction that we’re going to, sana magtuloy-tuloy,” said Manuel.
Asked about his personal cage dreams, Manuel said: “I’ll see how far I can go with basketball. I have opportunities already coming and I just hope to take advantage of them na lang.” – By Jerome Lagunzad
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