ALJON MARIANO had waited for over a year for that moment to come.
And when it finally did, the 19-year-old Santo Tomas stalwart didn’t waste the opportunity.
Mariano fired 13 of his 21 points in a sizzling third-quarter run to key the Tigers’ dramatic 71-70 win over defending four-time champion Ateneo Blue Eagles on Thursday, and in the process established himself as one of the players to watch in the UAAP men’s basketball tournament this season.
His heroics came just two games into the comeback season for the former UST benchwarmer, who had skipped the entire campaign last year due to a fracture in his right ankle suffered during a tune-up game.
Instead of feeling despair, Mariano turned last season’s misfortune into his burning motivation as he metamorphosed into a player nobody thought he was during an uneventful first season with the Tigers in 2010.
“Noong una, sobrang down talaga ako kasi masarap talaga maglaro, lalo na last year kasi pinaghandaan ko talaga ‘yun,” he recalled. “Pero na-realize ko na okey lang ‘yun. Inisip ko na lang na paghahandaan ko talaga this year para pagbalik ko, malakas ang impact.”
Mariano returned to practice with the Tigers in November. He then suited up in the PBA D-League Foundation Cup where coach Pido Jarencio, who is also Mariano's coach at UST, gave him enough playing minutes with RnW Pacific Pipes to regain his confidence.
“Minsan parang naghe-hesitate ako mag-drive, pero noong nakapaglaro ako sa D-League, binabad ako ni coach Pido kaya bumalik ‘yung kumpiyansa ko,” Mariano recalled.
Mariano started to make heads turn during the preseason, leading the Tigers in the Filoil Cup with an average of 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. That early he was already pinpointed by Ateneo coach Norman Black as the most dangerous players among the Tigers.
On Thursday, Black's words rang true as Mariano presided over the Tigers' fightback from 19-points down on the way to a famous victory over the reigning champions Eagles.
Jarencio said he expects a lot more from his third-year player. “Breakout game talaga ni Aljon ito. Ini-expect ko na puputok siya this season. Ang kailangan na lang niya ay consistency,” he said.
But Mariano has vowed to become an ever better player.
“Gusto kong maging versatile player dahil pag-aaralan rin nila ‘yung laro ko. Paiba-iba dapat ang laro ko,” Mariano said.