UP Fighting Maroons: From ridiculed to respected

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UP 71 – DLSU 66

The UP Fighting Maroons. 2-0. Undefeated and still atop of the team standings.

Somewhere below, lie Ateneo, FEU and NU. All with a loss each.

And, of course, UP’s latest victim, De La Salle.

It’s almost offensive how everyone seems so surprised that the Maroons are where they are now. Then again, we sucked so badly in the past few years that it makes sense. 2-40 in the past three seasons? Geez, that easily invites heckling.

Somewhere, some random must be asking, “how in the world is UP 2-0?”

Ever since they started preparing for Season 78, it was made clear that defense was going to be the focal point of UP’s system. There wasn’t an interview with any of the Maroons – coach or player – wherein that wasn’t emphasized enough. The coaching staff put a premium on UP’s D, and against the Green Archers, that was put on full display.

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When the game began, I admit I was hesitant about the match-ups and the rotation.

Andrew Harris instead of Cheick Kone? Agustini Amar on Jeron Teng?

Well, it turned out that those two would be the anchors of UP’s defense that day.

Harris was simply solid underneath, never trying to do anything more than what was necessary to stop or alter a DLSU shot. No unnecessary shoves or ward-offs. No irrational attempts to swat the ball. No one or two dribbles after securing a rebound.

Even though an undersized Prince Rivero was able to get to a double-double, scoring 15 points off put-backs and easy lay-ins, what stands out more on the stat sheet is that Jason Perkins was limited to five points. And that’s mostly because of Harris.

And when you’re facing La Salle, it’s inevitable to worry about Jeron. Some would call him the best player in the league right now. Some would say he could win the MVP this year. Well for UP Head Coach Rensy Bajar, as he revealed in the post-game presscon, he was ready to give Jeron his numbers. He knew Jeron would get points and so his instruction to the team was to cut off Teng’s supporting cast.

But Amar had other plans. Why give the guy points when there’s a way to stop him? While Jeron was able to muscle his way to the hoop a couple of times, the young UP guard never looked intimidated by the star and stayed with him the entire way. He made it difficult for Teng to get a clean look, to gather himself for a drive, or to even catch the basketball.

In one of the biggest plays of the game, Amar’s pressure forced Teng to fumble an inbound late in the fourth. And as they race to the loose ball, Jeron was caught warding off and was called for his fifth foul. That was only one of the handful of offensive fouls Amar drew from DLSU that day – two of which were from Teng.

Harris and Amar were tremendous on defense every time they stepped on the court. But that wasn’t their only contribution to the win. Both of them also hit crucial free throws down the stretch to keep the Archers at bay.

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Those two Maroons held their own. But it was a complete team effort that got the Fighting Maroons that win. Jett Manuel was in his element, taking less erratic shots and more of his favorite mid-rangers. Paul Desiderio looked more in control of his attacks. Diego Dario stayed composed despite DLSU’s threatening late-game surge and made veteran-like decisions.

The players, there’s nothing left unsaid about how great they played. But what I’m afraid might go uncredited is how intelligently Coach Rensy steered the Maroons to a huge win. It’s something that no one has been able to accomplish in the past years.

So to answer that random dude’s question, without taking any credit away from anyone and everyone, a big reason for UP’s undefeated, league-leading 2-0 slate is the smarts of Coach Rensy Bajar.

The Fighting Maroons sucked so bad in the past few years that they somehow deserved to be ridiculed.

But now that they’re playing this brand of winning basketball, it’s about time y’all show respect.

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