Three hours of hell: A UAAP championship timeline
MANILA, Philippines—5:27 pm. Araneta Coliseum. Wednesday.
The energy inside the Big Dome was palpable, even as the lights were still dim and the growing crowd was only a hush above the other sounds inside the coliseum. There was little indication of how things would turn into full-blown pandemonium for the Green Archers and the Fighting Maroons.
It wasn’t a full house yet. But with half an hour before tip-off, it was a house divided, with an invisible barricade splitting the crowd, a line defined only by colors on either side of it: Maroon on one, green and white on the other. There was a surprising sighting of former La Salle star Mike Cortez’s classic threads.
The Coliseum’s titantron was flashing advertisements for big events it would host in the coming days. One of Brent Faiyaz for next year, one of Fall Out Boy’s upcoming concert on Saturday and one of a cockfighting tournament that begins in January.
No one was paying attention to those giant screens. The only thing fans were looking for were their seats or ushers that could accompany them to their spots.
— INQUIRER Sports (@INQUIRERSports) December 6, 2023
5:35 pm. The first beats of the soon-to-be raucous drum line of La Salle started playing.
The “dum-dum-du-dum” rhythm that every La Sallian knows and loves blared around the arena and while it still wasn’t a full house, supporters of the Taft-camped squad belted out the signature “go La Salle!” chants.
Away from the center of action, inside their dugout, several Fighting Maroons began their stretching routines.
Supporters bee-lined toward CJ Cansino and JD Cagulangan’ to wish them good luck. Both swingmen returned smiles and fist bumps—but said little else.
No words were needed. The time for talk was done and both ace players knew it. This was the time for action. And both stars were waiting for the buzzer to get them going.
A few minutes later and it was the Green Archers’ turn to take the tunnel for their own stretching rites.
Francis Escandor started doing light jumping jacks while shaking both his hands in the process. This was the same guy who scored 14 points a few days earlier to force the upcoming do-or-die game.
“[Are] you nervous?” the Inquirer asked the sweet-shooting guard.
All he could do was smile, shrug his shoulders and say, “it’s the Finals, bro.”
5:59 pm. A few minutes before Araneta was completely filled to the brim, the UP crowd outnumbered the La Sallians. The ever-so-scintillating “UP Fight!” chants crescendoed inside the Coliseum while the players watched and listened on as they continued to chuck up practice shots.
Green Archers coach Topex Robinson called on his wards to join hands for one last time before the heavy-hitting showdown. The Taft side said one last prayer and one last wish. Who knows what was said in that huddle? Give us this day, perhaps.
6:08 pm. War began with UP’s Malick Diouf winning the tip-off, but it was Escandor who drew first blood with an inside bucket.
It was a simple back-and-forth to begin the collision but it was a sign that this game would be a “who would blink first,” type of contest.
Stop to catch your breath for just one second and you’d be left in the dust. That has been the story of this gargantuan series, after all.
In Game 1, La Salle took a little time to slow down and UP pulled every trigger in the playbook to leave the Archers in tatters, 97-67.
Then, La Salle did the exact same thing in Game 2. When the Green Archers saw the Fighting Maroons bamboozled in the third quarter, they stepped on the gas and didn’t even dare look at the rearview mirror, zooming to a dominant 82-60 victory.
In Game 3, when all chips were on the table and all the marbles were up for grabs, both camps ran the floor with a sense of urgency.
This was what Robinson was trying to tell the league all along. It was hunt or be hunted. But with the stakes so high, it was hard to determine who were the hunters and who were the hunted.
That would all soon change a few hours later in front of 25,192 collegiate basketball fanatics.
CALL HIM WHAT HE IS!
Kevin Quiambao sinks his free throws to the tune of “MVP” to push La Salle to a 70-67 lead over UP with 3:36 to go. | @MeloFuertesINQ
— INQUIRER Sports (@INQUIRERSports) December 6, 2023
8:26 pm. KQ could taste it. The brass hardware is virtually in his palms. The enormity of it all couldn’t escape the star big man anymore. Tears were shed. With 5.4 seconds to go and a 71-69 lead for his squad, he could feel the moment nearing.
The hours of hell were expiring. Glory beckoned. The training, the prayer circle a few hours prior to the grudge match, and the years and years of hardships were all about to pay off for the Season 86 MVP.
8:31 pm. The Archers were the hunters. As Evan Nelle vowed at the end of an embarrassing Game 1, they were the hunters that successfully snared UP, 73-69, to capture the UAAP Season 86 trophy.
“There’s no tomorrow now. Here, every possession is like gold… As one of the reliable guys in the team, I needed to step up as best as I can, on or off the ball,” said KQ after eventually winning Finals MVP.
“To the La Salle community, thank you because you were there since the start of the first round, all of you were there whether win or lose. One more year!”
While everyone swarmed the hardcourt filled with tears and sweat, KQ went to the bench, alone, bowing his head to cry and whisper a prayer of thanks for the sweet, sweet victory he had just obtained after pouring in 24 points and nine rebounds in the rubber match.
Three hours of hell. Coach Topex Robinson rose from the damnation of having no collegiate championships in his illustrious coaching career to finally becoming a UAAP champion.
“Losing Game 1 by 30 was really challenging for us but I just told them we need each other, we got this far and we just can’t give up,” said Robinson.
“I’m just so grateful that they responded to the challenge… Actually, I was embraced by the La Salle values, which is faith, service and communion,” added the La Salle alum.
And UP, well, UP had to stomach something as painful as being stuck in limbo. For the second year in a row, the Fighting Maroons came short again in Game 3 of the UAAP Finals.
To add more searing pain to the Diliman side, they would lose the services of CJ Cansino and star center Diouf, who finished with five and 21 points, respectively, in the season-ending loss.
But coach Goldwin Monteverde would have to cross that bridge when he gets there. For this moment here, what he has to do is watch and marvel at La Salle’s triumphant rise to the occasion.
9:00 pm. Hell had frozen over. And when the ice thawed, the Green Archers held their bows high to signify their latest conquest.