FIVE of the six attempts Aljon Mariano threw up from the top of the three-point arc split the bottom of the net as the lights of Upper Deck Gym slowly dimmed at the end of Ginebra practice.
The extra shooting was all part of the practice routine for one of Ginebra's emerging young guns as he continues to polish his marksmanship and build his claim to be a reliable 3-and-D guy for coach Tim Cone.
"Yung focus ko, nasa Ginebra na. Na kila coach Tim Cone at sa teammates ko. Ibang-iba na 'yung nangyari sa akin pagdating ko sa Ginebra," Mariano said.
Picked in the second round of the 2015 PBA rookie draft, Mariano has found his niche in the powerhouse Gin Kings squad where he currently averages eight points and five rebounds in 23 minutes in the Governors Cup while stepping into the gap left by the injured Joe Devance.
All those made shots in practice help build the confidence of Mariano, whose career, unfortunately, has been defined by shots that he missed and plays the former University of Santo Tomas star failed to make in Game Three of the UAAP Season 76 Finals against De La Salle.
To this day, in fact, his face constantly pops up in memes and tweets to mark moments of failure - a painful reminder of the one bad performance he had in the most important game of his UST career that happened exactly five years ago today.
It felt like it was just yesterday.
October 12, 2013. Game Three of the UAAP Season 76 men's basketball Finals at Mall of Asia Arena. The score: UST 65, La Salle 65.
Ball was with the Growling Tigers with a chance to win with 6.1 seconds left in regulation. Mariano, then shooting 0-of-8 for the game, still had the courage to ask for the ball and go for a step-back three with Green Archer center Norbert Torres in front of him. It wasn't a bad shot, but it was an available shot as the clock continued to tick down. The shot fell short. The buzzer sounded. Game went to overtime.
Fast forward to four-and-a-half minutes later, and La Salle's rookie Jeron Teng made his first free throw to cut UST's lead down to one, 69-68. The second free throw hit the back iron, sending the leather careening into the left baseline as Mariano tracked the long rebound with Arnold Van Opstal in close pursuit. Trapped between the baseline and Van Opstal, the 21-year-old was left with no choice but to give up the ball, but his bounce pass to Kevin Ferrer sailed out of bounds. Turnover. La Salle ball with 26.7 seconds remaining.
It all went downhill from there for Mariano and UST. Almond Vosotros rose for the cold-blooded go-ahead jumper, LA Revilla gave his side a little more breathing room with a split from the line to make it a two-point game, and UST failed to cash in on its chances. La Salle 71 - UST 69. The Green Archers were the UAAP men's basketball champions.
History is written by the victors and no one remembers who came in second. Yet for Mariano, the memory of that one big letdown continues to haunt him to this day.
King Archer. Pa-star. Bwakaw. He has read all the bad things thrown his way online, mostly from disappointed UST fans. But if there's one thing which really struck a nerve, it was the accusation that he threw the game away.
He heard them all. To this day, Mariano has time and again denied the accusations, but the suspicion just won't go away.
"Syempre pinakamasakit na nasabi sa akin 'yung term sa Pinoy na binenta ko daw yung laro," he said. "Talagang masakit sa akin, pero mas masakit sa pamilya ko at sumusuporta sa akin kasi alam ko na talagang malinis ang loob ko. Malinis ang puso ko na hindi ako nagbebenta ng laro kahit ano pa yan."
"May mga nagsabi na nabigyan daw ako ng kotse na brand new or ng condo, pero wala naman at hindi naman nila mapatunayan. Sana nga totoo, pero wala naman."
Mariano was an inconsolable as UST made its way out of the venue, his heart filled with regret over a win that got away. As the players made their way to the team bus, he could only lean on Ed Daquioag's shoulders as tears continue to roll down his face.
Mariano, then 21, said he felt so down he didn't want to show his face to the UST community.
"After ng game, down talaga ako. Sobrang sama ng pakiramdam ko. Unang pumasok sa isip ko, nakakahiya nga na magpakita sa UST community," he said. "Sobrang hirap. Ang ganda ng chance namin mag-champion that year and talagang solid ang lineup."
But more than anyone, Mariano felt for the people who had to share his pain, defending him for the barrage of vitriol that came his way.
"Ang hirap lang sa mga sumusuporta sa akin, sa family ko, sila ang mas affected than ako. Ok naman ako kasi alam ko yung laro ko, alam ko yung nilaro ko. May tiwala ako sa mga desisyon na ginawa ko at alam ko na makakabalik ako.
"Talagang lalaruin ko lang yung gusto ko. Maglalaro ako para manalo, para sa school, at sa mga sumusuporta sa amin. Pero syempre, mas apektado yung family ko dahil hindi sila sanay sa negative na reaction na ganoon," he said.
"Normal reaction ng magulang na masaktan sila pag may sinabi na masama about sa anak nila. Syempre sila ang unang magde-defend sa akin na hindi nila ako pinalaki na magbebenta ng laro yan. 'Alam namin kung paano namin yan pinalaki, na may takot sa Diyos at laro lang talaga ang habol niyan.' Alam nila na malinis ang konsensya ko."
That the accusation came mostly from the UST community made Mariano sick.
"Masakit kasi mas maraming nagsabi noon sa school namin, sa UST community," he shared. "Mas okay siguro if mula sa kalaban ang magsabi ng ganoon. Ang masama lang, from your side pa ang nagsasabi. Syempre nakakalungkot yun."
When the team arrived at the school's Espana campus, a warm welcome eased Aljon's pain.
"Di ko in-expect na pagbaba ko, nandoon na yung kotse ko at ang daming supporters na naghihintay at nagchi-cheer up sa akin," he said. "Doon pa lang, napawi na yung sakit na naramdaman ko kasi kahit ganoon yung nangyari, ang dami pa ring sumusuporta sa akin. Doon na lang ako kumuha ng lakas."
Prior to the finals, Mariano had worked his way back from a fractured right ankle suffered two years earlier to earn his place in coach Pido Jarencio's rotation and establish himself as a vital cog for UST while earning the moniker 'Clutch Cat' from fans.
Yet all fans cared to remember was that one game where Mariano messed up. Disappointed as he was, Aljon said he soon learned to tune it all out.
"Sobrang bihira na ako mag-open ng social media. Kung makakita man ako ng mga ganoong meme, mas natatawa pa nga ako kasi pag nilalagay ko yung sarili ko sa kalagayan nila, nakakatawa kasi parang sobrang tagal na. Ang dami nang nangyari, bakit hindi niyo na lang ilagay yung energy ninyo sa ibang bagay?
"Wala na rin namang mangyayari na kahit ano pa yung pagtalunan natin. Di ko na pinapansin kung nakikita ko man. Pag nakikita ko, wala na akong nararamdaman. Wala naman akong regrets sa mga nangyari."
After a while, Mariano said he can sleep soundly at night despite everything that has happened.
"At peace na talaga ako. Kahit anong mangyari, kung i-bash ako ng UST community o magsabi sila ng negative sa akin, yung puso ko Thomasian pa rin," he said. "Kahit anong mangyari, talagang Tomasino pa rin ako. Pag nananalo man o natatalo ang mga UST teams natin sa UAAP, suporta pa rin ako sa UST."
Since his graduation, the Tigers have made it to the finals once, in UAAP Season 78 in 2015 when they finished bridesmaids anew, this time to the FEU Tamaraws, before going on a woeful three-year stretch that led to the hiring of coach Aldin Ayo.
Mariano has also moved on but has not completely forgotten one of the darkest moments of his life. He is what he is today because of what he now swore is a big learning experience.
"Minulat talaga ako nung experience na yun, not just about basketball but more about life. How to handle life and those situations when you're down and how you will get back up and how will you find joy and peace within you. That's why I'm really grateful it happened and I kind of knew the essence of life after that. I learned a lot," he said.
"Una, nakilala ko kung sino yung mga magde-defend sa akin at sino yung mga susuporta sa akin kahit anong mangyari. Sa career ko naman, yun din ang naging turning point dahil kung hindi siguro nangyari yun, kung na-shoot ko yung last shot, siguro tataas ang tingin ko sa sarili ko at di na ako magpupursigi, na magiging entitled ako na darating na lang lahat sa akin.
"Doon nabuo ang character ko. Doon ako na-develop at talagang nag-grow ako from that experience. Kahit saan ako mapunta, dadalhin ko yung experience na yun, na kahit anong mangyari sa akin, bumaba na ako eh. Madapa man ulit ako, alam kong hindi ako mag-give up at talagang babangon ako dahil napagdaanan ko na yung sa baba eh.
"Thankful din ako sa experience na yun kasi doon talaga ako tumatag. It molded me to who I am now and who I will become. I will keep on going and going and nothing and no one can stop me because God is always with me."
At 26, Mariano is experiencing a resurgence at Ginebra, where he has earned the trust of the PBA's most successful coach and won three championships to boot, with possibly ring No. 4 on its way soon.
Mariano feels like he has been to hell and back. And one thing he learned, it's that you could not allow a single mistake define who you are.
"I hope I could impact and inspire others with what happened to me," he said. "For those who are chasing their goals and dreams, never ever give up. Life isn't made for the weak. You fight and battle, but never break because you are the captain of your soul."