A week ago, Karlo Lovenia ranked UP Fighting Maroons wing man Paul Desiderio fourth in his list of best players in UAAP Season 80.
A well-regarded recruit from Cebu, Desiderio has constantly pushed himself from being an underdog rookie to where he is now, one of the main men of the darkhorse Fighting Maroons. He’s sharped his skills as a gunner, he’s added muscle, he’s improved since Day 1. On impressive days he can give you 20-5-5. But like any good player, Desiderio also has his limits.
On Sunday, well, let’s just say Desiderio wasn’t having it his way for most stretches of UP’s Season 80 opener against the UST Growling Tigers. I was seated just a few rows behind the UP rim so I had a front seat experience of… how Desiderio’s tendencies got in the way of him for a large part of the back and forth duel between the two squads.
To say Desiderio struggled in his season 80 opener was an understatement. He was flubbing his shots. On several drives, Desiderio forced his attempts against the UST defense, often going acrobatic only to throw wild shots up in the air. On certains he would pass up open shots and take contested jumpers instead. Most of these happened in the second half where it was anybody’s game.
But for a handful of reasons (including Desiderio himself), UP had kept themselves in the game. They were in fact ahead by double-digits midway through it before the Tigers fought back.
And then, when it mattered, Desiderio was there. UST was up 70-68 when he hit a difficult lay-up to tie things up. Noah Webb scored a split from the line, but Jaypee Faundo answered with his own. It was still deadlocked before a rushed shot from Jun Manzo with 12 seconds left set up UST for what could be a game-winning possession. But Gelo Vito was whistled for a blocking foul in transition, leading to two free throws for Marvin Lee which pushed UST ahead 73-71 with over five seconds left.
Bo Perasol called a timeout. In all honestly, it felt UP was ready to write a “one” in the loss column. It felt like, whatever they could have mapped out off the timeout was probably to just try and send the game to overtime, and that’s even if they make the basket. They blew a double-digit lead anyway and played sloppy in the fourth quarter that it all had the looks of a loss.
But Desiderio felt the opposite. “Yung mga three-point shot yung pina-practice ko talaga,” he said. “Sabi ko, papasok ‘to. Nag-timeout naman si coach Bo so sabi ko kapag open ako, ititira ko talaga.”
Indeed, some incredible stuff went down after. Off the sideline out of bounds, Manzo received the ball. On the opposite side of the UP court, Desiderio cut, came off a pindown, received the leather, and pulled up.
UP 74, UST 73. The UP gallery inside the Mall of Asia Arena went nuts. Desiderio sank the game-winning triple, saving UP from defeat, straight-out-of-the-basketball-gods’-storybook fashion.
“Noong nasa huddle kami, nag-usap kami ni Paul, sabi ko, dong, hahanapin talaga kita,” Manzo, who assisted Desiderio’s game-winning bucket, said. “Paglabas niya, kitang-kita ko siya kasi ang ganda noong screen. Para sa kanya talaga ‘yun.”
Nevermind Desiderio was 1-of-10 from the three-point line prior to that. Nevermind he was 5-of-19 from the field overall prior.
“Ang dami ko nang tinira eh. Syempre, mahihiya pa ba ako, eh last shot na? Sayang naman. Sabi naman ni coach, kapag open, itira mo na. Buti pumasok,” he said, adding he simulates end-of-game situationals in practice.
Just imagine if he hesitated; if he didn’t let it fly, there would be none of the celebrations Sunday afternoon.
“I was on the bench. I wasn’t even looking anymore, because we were just praying. Noong umingay yung crowd we stood up, we know it went in,” Juan Gomez de Liano said.
“I was going for the offensive rebound. Noong pumasok, I was in extreme joy. I was shouting na, I was looking for Paul, I hugged him,” Noah Webb added.
In his post-game press conference talk, Perasol said his main objective when he was tasked to be the head coach of the Maroons was to bring the excitement back.
“Yung unang objective ko talaga when I took over was to generate excitement kasi walang kabuhay-buhay talaga yung UP community pagdating sa pagbigay ng tsansa sa basketball team,” Perasol said. “In (this) game, we are going nowhere if we play like this but what a way to get that objective, you generate excitement kahit na syempre wala silang pakialam anong nangyari sa game but you generate excitement with that last second shot.”
It may just be the opening game, but winning it sets the tone for UP this season as they try to make the Final Four. For Perasol, it is also important to get more people involved and transform more non-believers into supporters.
“More than anything, ako, personally, gusto ko maibalik yung passion nila, yung paniniwala nila doon sa programa. Masyadong matagal nang bugbog or pagiging passive ng community sa basketball team. We can see the difference between the other programs. More the wins and losses, I just wanted to get back to excitement that you cheer for the team no matter what happens,” he said.
“It has to be both ways. The excitement is going to push to get those wins. I don’t think people will be excited in a losing team. We need to get those wins to generate excitement to the people who support us.”
Thanks to never giving up and of course his cojones for bigtime moments, Desiderio finally has his own signature UAAP one — a moment that will be looped on social media, a moment that will be on future UAAP season teaser videos in the UP highlights part.
“I don’t know how he does that but he called it. During the timeout, he said, coach, papasok ito. Mananalo tayo. Papasok ito. My instruction was if you’re open in the three-point area, take it,” Perasol said.
Well, that’s just what the best of the best do.