The one percent

Gupilan paves unlikely path with hard work and determination

By OWEN O'BRIEN
On February 9, 2014

  • Gupilan is one of just 27 NCAA Division-I women’s basketball players. The point guard has 92 assists this season and leads the Bulls with 31.5 minutes a game. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
  • Margeaux Gupilan has started 57 games in her four years and all 20 this season for Buffalo. She currently ranks eighth in school history in assists and tied a school record with six 3-pointers in a half this season. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
  • Gupilan started at point guard when Bellarmine-Jefferson high school won its first State Championship in her junior season. Gupilan’s cousin Shelly, sitting directly behind the title, was a senior and is currently playing professionally in the Philippines. Courtesy of Margeaux Gupilan
  • Left to right - Margeaux Gupilan, her brother Adam, sister Amanda, father King, Manny Pacquiao and mother Rose. Gupilan’s family has played a huge role in her basketball career. Gupilan and Amanda played one-on-one together for hours and her father introduced her to the game and stressed a strong work ethic. Courtesy of Margeaux Gupilan

Margeaux Gupilan is a statistical anomaly.

She's 5-foot-7, Filipino and plays Division I basketball.

In the 2010-11 season - Gupilan's freshman year at UB - less than 1 percent of Division I women basketball players were Asian (45 of 4,820 players, totaling 0.93 percent). In the 2012-13 season, this number dropped to 0.5 percent. Of the 4,972 athletes, only 27 were Asian, according to NCAA.org.

"[During] warm-ups, I know, who sees a small Filipino girl?" Gupilan said. "They look at you and look the other way. When game time comes, I love it when they say, 'You need to watch where she goes, pick her up, where's No. 15?'"

Gupilan, a senior, is the starting point guard for the women's basketball team. The Sun Valley, Calif., native started 28 games last season and emerged as one of Buffalo's key playmakers. She'saveraging 7.9 points and 4.6 assists this season and leads the team with 31.4 minutes a game.

"Always being doubted or overlooked has probably been with me my entire life," she said. "It's like that little fire in me when I play. The feeling of, 'You should have never doubted me,' is the best feeling ever, especially since I've worked so hard for it."

When she goes home to Sun Valley, family, friends and strangers want to talk and congratulate her. Her little cousins and their friends tell Gupilan they want to be like her.

"I was shocked," Gupilan said. "I didn't know I could be an inspiration to other people," she said, noting she regularly receives supportive phone calls, text messages, emails and Facebook messages. She said the outpouring motivates her. She wants to impress all those watching.

Gupilan said it doesn't add extra pressure. If others look up to her, she wants it to be due to her work ethic - something her father instilled in her at a young age.

Basketball wasn't an immediate love for Gupilan, according to her father, "King" Gupilan. In fact, she stumbled into it when she was pulled from the stands to sub in one of her older sister's games. She was only 8 - two years younger than the others - but she jumped in happily.

Gupilan said she "probably hated basketball" for the first few years because of how much work her father made her put in. She remembers not being allowed to come in for dinner until she made a certain amount of shots. She was only 9.

"I would go into my room crying," Gupilan said. "There were nights I wouldn't even talk to my dad because he was so hard on me."           

Even after coming home from a practice or camp, King made her go through her workouts again in the backyard. Gupilan's friends would call and ask if she wanted to get pizza, but she had to wait until her driveway basketball workouts were over.

"He never really told me, but I knew he was always preparing me for something beyond what was going on in that moment," Gupilan said. "It was tough love."

Gupilan's sister, Amanda, was a local basketball standout. Growing up, the two played one-on-one in their backyard for hours.

Amanda noticed Gupilan's basketball IQ just from their games at home. Gupilan wouldn't let her shoot - which was her strong point. Instead, she forced Amanda to dribble around so Gupilan could swipe the ball away.

Basketball is popular in Sun Valley - a largely Asian community. Gupilan said there were always pick-up games in parks around the city.

When Gupilan began playing in organized leagues, she was taller than most of the girls her age. She was a post player until high school.

After her transition to guard, because everyone else either caught up or eclipsed her in height, Gupilan still had tremendous post skills, which separated her from most of the other guards in the league. She still, however, felt she had something to prove.

"Every single time Margeaux plays, she's trying to knock over something and convince people that [she] belongs," King said. "Everywhere you go, there will be doubters. People saying, 'You aren't big or athletic enough,' but Margeaux would just take the negatives into positives."

She comes from an athletic background. Her father was one of 11 children, who all played basketball, and Manny Pacquiao is one of her uncles. Some family members played professional basketball in the Philippines. Her family competes against other families around the neighborhood, and the games can get physical, with small fights occasionally breaking out.

Amanda, her cousin Shelly and Gupilan were separated by three classes in high school. The trio played together at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School. Gupilan played varsity since her freshman year and won the school's first state championship as a junior.

Her family's large-scale support was evident during those games. Gupilan described the environment around her games as a party. Sometimes, her family would have a barbecue outside the arena before and after the games.

"We would go to games, and I'm not exaggerating, there would be at least 50-75 people with just their family to come out and support for the games," said Brian Camacho, Gupilan's high school coach.           

When Gupilan began to play college basketball, the 5-foot-10 post players became 6-foot-2. The competition wasn't only bigger, but faster and stronger as well. Gupilan had to rely on her basketball smarts to beat the bigger players. She tries to beat her opponents off the dribble before they have the time to react.

"What I do in a game is just be one step ahead," Gupilan said. "Even if you are faster than me, I'm already there."

Gupilan received college offers from Division I and II programs around the country. Her parents let Gupilan decide where she would go and what level of basketball she would play for the next four years.

Buffalo is a long way from sunny southern California. When Gupilan first heard about Buffalo, she had to go on Google Maps just to find where it was. She originally thought it must be like New York City.

"Driving on the street, I [would] slide [in the snow] sometimes and I thought I was going to die," Guplian said. "I was going 5 miles an hour."

Gupilan's arrival in Buffalo is credited to an unlikely source - Seattle University's women's basketball coach Joan Bonvicini. Camacho reached out to Bonvicini to gauge her interest in recruiting his point guard. Bonvicini had already signed her incoming class, but she took an interest in seeing Gupilan play D-I basketball because she knew Gupilan had the talent.

One email Bonvicini sent was to Linda Hill-MacDonald, Buffalo's women's head basketball coach at the time. Hill-MacDonald and her staff began making phone calls about Gupilan, and then-assistant coach Cara Pearson flew to California to watch her practice.

"We needed a point guard at the time, and we felt that if someone of Joan Bonvicini's caliber would take the time to contact people about [Gupilan], there had to be something special about her," Pearson said.

Pearson watched Gupilan for only 30 minutes. It was enough to confirm everything she saw on tape.

When Hill-MacDonald was fired after Gupilan's sophomore season, it was another challenge for Gupilan to overcome. It was difficult for her to see the coach who gave her the chance to play D-I basketball lose her job.

"I just saw it as another obstacle to get over," Gupilan said. "Then we interviewed coach [Felisha Legette-Jack]; she was my first interest. She was very upbeat, passionate and enthusiastic. You could just feel the energy in the room at the first meeting."

But the new head coach, Felisha Legette-Jack, wanted more out of Gupilan.

"When I first met Margeaux, it wasn't love at first sight," Legette-Jack said. "I thought Margeaux was an underachiever. I thought Margeaux wasn't serious about academics. I told her I didn't see her future at Buffalo being extended beyond the summer."

Gupilan responded to that challenge and earned a 3.5 GPA in summer courses. Then she received a 3.7 the following fall, proving to Legette-Jack that she had the off-court toughness and work ethic to play point guard for her. Now, Legette-Jack says she's "truly grateful" Gupilan is part of her team.

In the rare moments when she's on the sideline, Gupilan is one of the loudest supporters. She's the first one standing after a three and holding her teammates accountable defensively.

She wasn't always this way. Gupilan was quiet and shy growing up. She said her large family allowed her a comfort zone and she always had someone to talk to. She didn't have many friends, describing herself as not a "social butterfly."

When she arrived at UB, however, she became more confident and assertive and began to branch out and meet new people.

Those in Gupilan's "comfort zone" kept a close eye on her basketball career. Her family is constantly watching her on TV and their computers when she plays in Buffalo.

"Man, you have no idea," King said about watching his daughter play. "My family will run inside and go, 'Dad, what's going on? Why are you screaming?' and I'll go, 'I'm, watching your sister play.'"

The Gupilans subscribe to services such as CBS Sports to watch as many of her games as possible. These services, along with mac-sports.com, allow them to watch most of Gupilan's contests. They also travel to UB for about four games per season.

"She knows we are there," Amanda said. "She knows we will be watching, so she knows she has to perform every single time."

Gupilan is aware of the eyes watching back home, especially her father's. King makes a unique whistle by squeezing his lips together - Gupilan says she can still hear it from across the country.

"It's like a little birdy on my shoulder when I'm playing," Gupilan said. "I know he's watching. I know he will say something. I just try not to let him down."

Gupilan has already received offers to represent her country and play professionally in the Philippines after graduation. She was invited to play in a tournament with the national team in Canada this summer, but she declined due to her commitment to UB and fear of injury.

Her goals at UB are still developing.

On a personal level, she finds motivation from Buffalo's newest assistant coach, Ashley Zuber. Zuber holds the single-game and single-season assists records at UB and ranks fifth in school history in assists. Gupilan is currently eighth in school history with 313 and is 75 behind Zuber. One of her goals is to surpass her coach.

But the more important one will likely be even more challenging: She wants to finish her career with a championship and believes this year's team, which is 13-9 after finishing 12-20 in Legette-Jack's first season, has that potential.

This is her final hurdle: bringing Buffalo its first Mid-American Conference women's basketball championship, just as she helped Bellarmine-Jefferson win its first state title.

 

email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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