For the past few seasons, NU has been a constant fixture in the UAAP Finals while the Maroons have hopped around the bottom of the standings.
But its seems this UP team has found what it takes to regain their lost glory. Before their win over NU, UP had defeated the UST Tigers.
With a mix of veterans and rookies, the UP Maroons have shown improvement on all skills compared to previous season. More importantly, they now seem less mentally-burdened, playing with more vigor and smiles than angst and frustration.
“Sinabi ko lang talaga sa kanila na mag-enjoy sa laro,” UP head coach Rod Palmero told the members of the press after their win over NU. “May gameplan kami for NU, thankfully na-execute nila. Talagang maganda ‘yung ginalaw nang mga bata. Hopefully ito na ‘yung mag-iispark sa amin papuntang Final Four.”
Third-year open hitter, Wendel Miguel certainly believes that this is the year they’ll make it back to the postseason.
Miguel has carried the brunt of the UP offense in their first three matches, adding multiple attacks to his expanding aresenal. Against NU, Miguel poured in a game-high 19 points.
For him, he is only doing what UP needs him to do. “Hindi ko iniisip masyado ‘yun (leading the team in scoring). Ang sakin lang, kung ano ‘yung kailangan ng team, ‘yun ‘yung gagawin ko – ‘yun ‘yung role ko,” Miguel shared to Tiebreaker Times. “Sobrang laki din ng tiwala ko sa mga kasama ko sa court kahit doon sa mga bago – kay Niccolo (Consuelo), kay Mac (Millete). Alam ko na kaya din nila ‘yung ipinagkakatiwala sa kanila.”
Apparently, Miguel was enjoying himself so much during the match, he didn’t even notice that they were ahead at certain points.
“Sobrang nag-enjoy lang po talaga ako kanina, hindi ko na napansin ‘yung score,” he recalled. “Kahit naman po ako hindi na-expect (na matatalo ‘yung NU). Pero talagang pinaghandaan po namin ‘to. At instruction nga po ni coach before the game is mag-enjoy lang. So ganoon na lang po ginawa namin.”
Another pivotal player in UP’s win was team captain Alfred Valbuena.
For the past matches, the fourth-year open hitter was relegated to the bench to start matches and was only subbed in at the tail-end of sets.
In their game against the Bulldogs, Valbuena was key in UP’s comeback in the third set. He came in when they were down by six points and scored four consecutive attacks to trim the lead down to two.
Having started for much of the past two seasons for UP, Valbuena says that he is comfortable with whatever role coach Palmero assigns him.
“Ang role ko ngayon is parang clutch player – sa dulo lang ipapasok. Kapag crunch time na, o kapag patapos na ‘yung set saka ako pinapasok ni coach,” Valbuena explained. “Any role will do. Kahit hindi ako ipasok, basta makakatulong ako sa team para manalo.”
The limited role also relieves some of the pressure from the team captain which he admitted was affecting him.
“Noong past few trainings namin, parang na-off ako. ‘Yung pressure kadi nadadala ko as a team captain. So sabi ni coach, hanapin ko muna ‘yung sarili ko – na parang dati naipapakita ko na talagang kayang-kaya ko makatulong sa team,” he added.
According to Valbuena, he’s extremely proud of how his teammates have been stepping up, especially with the rookie who replaced him in the starting lineup, Nicollo Consuelo.
“Sobrang proud ako, especially kay Niccollo. Ang ganda nang ipinapakita nilang lahat, ang ganda nang ginawa nila. Talagang may tapang sila.”
Even if they’re just at 2-1, the Maroons are confident they can make the Final Four again since Season 73.
“Ito na ‘yung time namin. Kailangan na lang siguro namin maghanda pa lalo for other teams at hindi mag-relax,” Miguel enthusiastically expressed.
The Maroons will next take on the DLSU Spikers (2-1) on Wednesday, 10 a.m. at the FilOil Flying V Centre.
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