Whenever the story of the UAAP 84 men's basketball tournament will be told, JD Cagulangan will be its protagonist.
The UP point guard's overtime takeover (let's call it, takeover-time, shall we?) in the winner-takes-all Game 3 against Ateneo last Friday spurred his side to their first championship since 1986, while also shooting the crown off the heads of the Blue Eagles -- who had reigned supreme for the last three years.
Yes, Zavier Lucero was the breakout star in the first round. Yes, Malick Diouf established himself as a paint presence in the second round. Yes, Ricci Rivero, James Spencer, and CJ Cansino, courtesy of their veteran smarts, contributed to the cause. Yes, the Fighting Maroons only made it to the finals in the first place because of Carl Tamayo's own takeover in the semifinals.
Still, it'll be Cagulangan who takes his place alongside Benjie Paras, Eric Altamirano, and Paul Desiderio as State U icons. Still, it'll be his sidestep triple over the long arms of super defender Gian Mamuyac that'll be the cover photo for this UP championship. It was the game-winner. It was the title drought-ender. It was the shot that'll live forever.
Cagulangan wasn't actually having the best of championship rounds. He averaged 6.0 points in 45% shooting, 3.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 2.0 turnovers in Games 1 and 2, and then had five points in 1-of-9 shooting to go along with three turnovers in regulation of Game 3. Still, he was out there in overtime, because his coach had full faith he had to be out there.
"Knowing JD, since high school naman siya, he really has the heart para maglaro," shared UP mentor Goldwin Monteverde, whose National U teams once waged war with Cagulangan's La Salle Green Hills (LSGH) squads for national high school championships. "Nag-uusap kami lagi and alam niya yung tiwala ng team sa kanya, alam niya yung tiwala ko sa kanya, and at that moment, wala akong doubt na pag nasa kanya ang bola, he could make the right play."
In the extra period, the 5-foot-9 playmaker proved his coach correct, turning it on with eight points in 3-of-3 shooting as well as one assist. With the Fighting Maroons down by five, 64-69, with a minute and a half to go, he fired an off-balance triple to beat the shot clock buzzer, set up Diouf for a two-handed throwdown, and then called game: sidestepping to the left, leaving Mamuyac to his right, and taking and making the three that catapulted the maroon and green to the mountaintop for the first time in nearly four decades.
"Sobrang sarap. Sobrang sarap talaga, champion na kami," expressed a beaming Cagulangan in the post-game interview, moments after receiving hugs upon hugs, high-fives upon high-fives, and pats upon pats on the head and back for totaling 13 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals. "Lagi lang ako ni-remind ni coach na wag kang bibitaw, kailangan ka sa loob. Lahat din ng teammates ko, hindi nagkulang na i-encourage ako."
Alongside his coach and teammates' full faith, another thing the 21-year-old had going for him was he's already done this before. In fact, anything and everything about this UP run to the title was eerily similar to the one LSGH had when Cagulangan was on the driver's seat there.
The Fighting Maroons needed two games to dispatch La Salle in the Final Four; the Greenies had to win twice against dynastic San Beda in their semifinals. In the finals, UP won Game 1 and lost Game 2; so did LSGH. Then in Game 3, it was Cagulangan who shone brightest among a constellation of stars, especially when it mattered most.
At the end of it all back in 2017, he and the Greenies were champions for the first time. He knew how to make history. He knew how good quenching a title drought felt. He knew he wanted another taste of it.
"Isa ring dahilan kaya ginusto kong lumipat sa UP, kasi wala pa silang championship (in 36 years)," he had shared back in the elimination round, explaining his choice of transferring to Diliman following an unceremonious exit from La Salle, his dream school. "Parang sa LSGH, gusto kong mag-make history ulit dito. Playing for UP, masaya akong may chance na naman akong makatulong para sa something special."
Cagulangan was supposed to be doing this as a Green Archer. He was a La Salle lifer. He was Taft Avenue's point guard of the future. Unfortunately, he didn't vibe with his coach in his first year -- as American consultant Jermaine Byrd was a newcomer to the Philippines and was far from well-versed in Philippine basketball. He didn't know about Cagulangan's history, hustle, and heart.
UP knew about all those, most definitely, and jumped at the chance to secure the services of the court general. The Fighting Maroons knew Cagulangan's value then, in 2019, when he reluctantly decided to leave La Salle. State U knew his value now, in 2022, when he was their starting -- as well as closing -- point guard ahead of longtime Monteverde players such as Gerry Abadiano and Terrence Fortea.
"Yung value ng sarili mo, paniwalaan mo. Ikaw lang ang nakakaalam ng totoong halaga mo," he remarked, reflecting on the lessons he learned after the painful end of his time in green and white. "Malalaman mong kung mahalaga sa kanila, aalagaan ka nila."
And UP will know Cagulangan's value well into the future. He's a legend in two different schools. In Green Hills, in Diliman, JD Cagulangan is a history-making hero.