UP topples Ateneo for UAAP Season 84 men's basketball title

JD Cagulangan took over for in overtime of Game 3 as the UP Fighting Maroons win their first title in 36 years by toppling the Ateneo Blue Eagles. UAAP Media Bureau

To be the champs, you have to beat the champs. The UP Fighting Maroons did just that by dethroning the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP 84 Men's Basketball Tournament. UP battled back from deficits, doubts, and differences, and ultimately, claimed their first championship in 36 years.

The title-clinching Game 3 of the finals was a signature showing for the Fighting Maroons, where their youth emerged and they fell behind by as much as five before CJ Cansino came through in his first game back from injury, JD Cagulangan took over in overtime, and coach Goldwin Monteverde pushed the right buttons for a 72-69 triumph over Ateneo Friday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

It was a total team effort that energized UP in toppling an Ateneo side that was on a 39-game winning streak before dropping three of its last five games. It was Cansino banking in a triple to tie the game with under two minutes remaining in regulation. It was Cagulangan making sure the ball was in his hands to make plays either for himself or his teammates when it mattered most. It was Finals MVP Malick Diouf standing his ground against Season MVP Ange Kouame. And it was their brilliant first-year shot-caller who knew how to put the pieces together, especially when it mattered most, and even up against Tab Baldwin.

"It's all about us knowing how good the team is and what the team is capable of doing," Rivero said. "As long as we stay together as a team and trust coach Gold's system, we can do it."

Rivero joins Eric Altamirano, Ronnie Magsanoc, and Benjie Paras as State U legends who brought home a title to Diliman.

The championship is the Fighting Maroons' first since 1986, when Altamirano, Magsanoc, and Paras were guided by mentor Joe Lipa into breaking through. Since then, State U underwent what looked like an unending rebuild, as they failed to advance to the Final Four from 1997 to 2018 and only made it back onto the finals stage also in 2018.

The Blue Eagles have reigned over the UAAP the last three seasons, and were well on their way to another title after winning their first 13 games by an average of 17.4 points. Come their 14th assignment, however, they ran into UP, who dealt them their first defeat in four years.

Three quarters of the Fighting Maroons' lineup are first-year players, with Rivero, James Spencer, and Noah Webb remaining from last season. Diouf and Lucero are transferees from smaller school CEU and the US NAIA's Cal State Maritime, respectively, while Tamayo has just been recognized as Rookie of the Year.

Even Monteverde, a two-time champion coach in the high school level, was yet to prove he can handle the greater expectations that comes in the college game. Still, through it all, UP found a way, even getting comparisons with PBA fan favorite team Ginebra and its 'Never Say Die' mentality. "For one thing, yung team takes pride that we never give up during games, whatever the score is. Lumalaban kami hanggang dulo," Monteverde said. "Ang gusto naming mangyari sa team, any time we win or lose, kung anong mga mali, mga lapses, alam naming doon kami dapat mag-improve."

Nobody personified redemption better than Cagulangan, who had five points in 1-of-9 shooting to go along with three turnovers after four quarters and then turned it on in overtime, with eight points in 3-of-3 shooting as well as one assist, putting his imprint in each and every one of the Fighting Maroons' makes in the pivotal period.