This Wednesday, the biggest non-Finals game in arguably the past 16 years will take place at the historic SMART Araneta Coliseum. On one end, the Adamson University Soaring Falcons are trying to end a 26-year Finals drought. On the other, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons are gunning for the school’s first-ever Men’s Basketball Finals appearance in 32 years.
But three years ago, no one would have thought these two squads could make the leap from cellar-dwellers to contenders.
Back in the 78th season of the UAAP, both the Soaring Falcons and the Fighting Maroons were the bottom-ranked teams of the league, as they both sported identical 3-11 slates. During that time, the encounters between the two squads were ridiculed as “championships” – championship sa ilalim. Both communities saw no end in sight, as both programs struggled to pick up recruits.
But then hope arrived. For Adamson, it was Franz Pumaren; for UP, Bo Perasol.
Adamson tapped Pumaren, who had been away from the collegiate game for six years, to change the culture of the team. He took over from interim head coach Mike Fermin.
“We are putting our full trust in Franz,” said Adamson’s then-outgoing president Fr. Gregorio Bañaga, Jr. back in December of 2015.
“While we do not expect an instant transformation, we are optimistic that he and the coaching staff will build us back to become a highly competitive team in the coming seasons to live up to its name, the Soaring Falcons.”
Five months later, it was UP’s turn. And who better to get than a former Maroon in Perasol?
“We expect the higher level of training. He is hungry. He wants to win,” said team booster Dan Palami back then about Perasol, who did not re-sign with the Ateneo Blue Eagles after that season. “It’s his passion for his alma mater that drives him to be here. He was singing the ‘UP Naming Mahal’ last season.
“Now he’s back to where he belongs.”
The Three-year Plan
Over the next three years, the Soaring Falcons and the Fighting Maroons took different tracks. Though the journey was different, the trajectory was the same – all trending upwards. Pumaren was immediately able to change the culture of Adamson in his very first year. From being the bottom-ranked team just a season prior, Adamson made it to the Final Four a year later.
“Whatever we accomplished this year and the disappointments we experienced, we will use it as a springboard for next year,” Pumaren expressed after Adamson’s last game of Season 79. “I’m excited for next year and in Season 81.
“I don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m here to give Adamson a championship before my contract expires.”
With Pumaren, the recruits also arrived, with Fil-Ams Jerrick Ahanmisi, Robbie Manalang, and Sean Manganti leading the way. Others would follow suit, including Cebuano hotshots Jerie Pingoy, Jerom Lastimosa, and Jed Colonia. Adamson would eventually make the Final Four for the next couple of years as well.
UP’s rise, on the other hand, was gradual.
In Perasol’s first year, the Fighting Maroons ended in sixth place with a 5-9 record. A year later, UP placed fifth with a 6-8 slate. “Feeling ko, malayo pa kami dun sa point na talagang gusto kong lumaban – yung point na pagkita mo, alam ko talo ko ‘to,” shared Perasol back then. “I’m happy na naabot na namin yan. But at the same time, we’re looking forward na maabot namin yung goal natin na umabot ng Final Four.
“Eventually, matawid din natin sa susunod na generations ng mga players ang winning culture – yun ang importante.”
With Paul Desiderio buying into Perasol’s ethos, the rest followed suit. The school brought in NCAA All-Star MVP Bright Akhuetie. Then blue chip-recruit Juan Gomez de Liano was able to help out by bringing in fellow Gilas Cadets Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras for Season 82. As the squad was built up, so was the hope.
Come his third year, Perasol has not just steered UP back to the Final Four after 21 years. As an added bonus, the Fighting Maroons will make it to the podium after three long decades.
In their third years, Adamson and UP had unorthodox preparations for the season. The Soaring Falcons took the road less travelled by UAAP squads, joining the PBA D-League to sharpen their saws. Meanwhile, the Fighting Maroons were able to train abroad for the first time in school history. And though Adamson eventually ended up in second while UP finished third to end the elimination round, the two squads figured in some of the most exciting contests this season.
Two well-matched squads. Two similar trajectories. All leading up to one game, with a date in the Finals at stake.
Only one team will be given the right to fulfill that destiny.