For a moment, the UP community was able to forget about everything else going on around them thanks to JD Cagulangan. Cagulangan labored for his points for much of the night, but with a championship on the line, he delivered and ended a 36-year title drought for the UP Fighting Maroons.
All the blood, sweat, and tears that led to this moment were well worth it, especially when you remember the Fighting Maroons had a handful of seasons where they finished with zero wins. The program has certainly made strides since then, but the UAAP Men’s Basketball Championship nonetheless remained elusive until now.
That it came against the three-time defending champions Ateneo Blue Eagles made it all the more sweet, especially as the last three games showed that the title wasn’t earned; it was EARNED. The Blue Eagles had previously denied them a title in Season 81 and UP relished the opportunity to exact revenge and deny their Katipunan neighbors a chance at history.
Different players stepped up for the Fighting Maroons, especially against a defense like that of the Blue Eagles. For Game 1, it was Ricci Rivero and Zavier Lucero who made the big plays down the stretch to put UP to within a win of the title. Carl Tamayo arguably played the game of life (postseason-wise) in Game 2, but his valiant effort wasn’t enough as Ateneo evened the series. UAAP Season 84 Finals MVP Malick Diouf and the returning CJ Cansino made the big shots down the stretch and set the stage for Cagulangan’s shot and the Fighting Maroons’ return to glory.
This finals series emphasized the unpredictable nature of UAAP basketball and the quick turnaround between games only complicated things. Fighting Maroons head coach Goldwyn Monteverde, who just finished his first year with the team, did not have the luxury of time to prepare his roster given that he joined the team amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The talent was overflowing for UP, but judging by the end result, it’s safe to say that Monteverde maximized the opportunities his roster was presented with in Season 84. Opposing teams targeted specific players and took away possessions with the hopes of shutting down the Fighting Maroons, but Monteverde quickly developed countermeasures in response.
Monteverde at times gave opponents a taste of their own medicine. The Blue Eagles had been known to force teams into committing errors, which they would happily pounce on and convert into points on the other end. UP read passing lanes and at times took advantage of what the referees allowed physically. Playoff officiating is starkly different from that of the elimination round and the Fighting Maroons rightly played fast unless they heard the whistle.
Points definitely win games, but Monteverde was able to put players in a position to succeed even if they didn’t end up scoring points. Winning basketball games largely comes with spacing and movement and making the likes of Carl Tamayo take what the defense gives them will eventually open scoring up opportunities later on.
Looking ahead, the future remains bright for UP as Ricci Rivero and Noah Webb will likely be the only Fighting Maroons not with the team in Season 85. Many of their key contributors have at least a season together, with Lucero looking to end his collegiate career with back-to-back titles. Moreover, they will have incoming recruits like Chicco Briones, who will slot into Lucero’s spot (though not necessarily his role) in Season 86.
With the current political climate, one can easily forget that the UAAP Season 84 Finals still needed to be played. The UP Fighting Maroons and the Ateneo Blue Eagles found a way to focus on the task at hand and played their hearts out in a thrilling championship series for the ages.
It was thus only fitting that the deciding Game 3 concluded with a cardiac finish that put a pause on a dynasty and may have begun a new one.