WORDS by Kobe Dayao
As I made my way from one end of the court to the other, trying to snag some clips of the crowd, an eerily similar yet completely different tune rang in front of me. It started with a “UP Fight!” but ended as “One Big Fight!”
Different starts, same finish, which kind of puts things into perspective how similar yet different these two teams are. Both extremely talented and deep squads, banged up, but still equally hungry to take home the crown to their side of Katipunan. Yet, despite the similarities, they both end on completely different ends of the spectrum. One team’s been a resident of the Finals since The Phenom was racking up back-to-back MVPs. The other’s a new, recurring face in the championship, bred from the seeds planted by the GDLs and company. One, a regular championship-winner, the other, a regular title contender that had finally broken through after nearly four decades.
The fans’ worst-kept secret was that they wanted a rematch from Season 84. We could rave all we wanted about NU’s magical run or Jerom Lastimosa’s mind-bending season, but at the end of the day, Season 84 Finals Chapter 2 is what’s on everyone’s mind.
When we got it, they did not disappoint. Game 1 was a UP block party, topped off with a Zav Lucero defensive highlight that had every hoops-media outlet going bonkers to squeeze out as much content from it as they could. This was UP’s game. They looked a lot like the defending champs, and that’s because they were. They caught Ateneo in a trance with their defense, and for a second, it looked like the Blue Eagles had no answer.
But then, Game 2 happened. Ateneo came out of the gates firing–not on offense–but on defense. They had their Band of Kuyas behind them, this time cheering from crowds instead of the bench. They shocked UP the same way UP shocked them the game prior. The trophy was suddenly all up for grabs in a third and final game.
Game 3. Final showdown. Everyone felt like they’ve read this book before. But Ateneo wanted to write their own version of the story. They had one hand on the throne and kept it there from start to finish. But UP did not let up. Harold Alarcon converted on every coach’s dream intentionally-missed-free throw play. If there was an extra point for every F-bomb dropped after that play, UP would’ve wrecked the scoreboard.
The Fighting Maroons trimmed the lead, threw bodies, and connected on plays they shouldn’t have been able to connect on, and for a second had everyone believing they could write the exact same story from a season ago. But this time, Ange Kouame and Ateneo weren’t having it. This time, Ateneo knew this was their game to win; their championship to take home. With mere milliseconds left on the clock, and as Lucero stepped on the UAAP hardwood one final time to hit his final collegiate bucket, the sea of Blue and White screamed in celebration—both for Lucero and for their championship redemption tour.
When the final buzzer sounded off, the fallen kings were back on top. Ateneo Blue Eagles are the UAAP champions again.
Twenty-point leads cut down to six in under a quarter. Game-saving blocks so tough even Dikembe Mutombo would’ve waved the finger in approval. Final-minute takeovers that had over 21,000 heads shaking, and Twitter fingers raging. And a single freethrow that had an entire fanbase on an emotional rollercoaster—literally, figuratively, live, and online.
All that on a MONDAY.
But I guess if you’re the top two teams in the league, fighting for a championship, fighting for a legacy to shut out the naysayers, and fighting for the throne that you believe is rightfully yours, I guess you can turn any ordinary Monday into an absolutely mind-boggling day.
It won’t always be like this. Finals don’t always happen on Mondays. The same way how it’s not always going to be the Battle of Katipunan in the Finals. It’s not always gonna be the Carl Tamayo show or the Ange Kouame block party racking up views on TikTok or on Instagram. It’s not always gonna be packed arenas with seas of blue and maroon chanting “Fight!” at the end of their cries. And it’s not always going to end with a destiny-fulfilling shot to take the crown. So, best appreciate these Finals, this series, this rivalry the best we can. It won’t always be like this.
How spoiled have we been to have witnessed all that, and more, in a span of a week or two, you might ask? Very. We’ve been spoiled not just this season, but the whole year.
Two seasons, two different champions, two different Finals MVPs, two history-making moments, all in one calendar year. So yes, we, as a collective fansbase of the UAAP, have been spoiled in 2022. And thank you to all the basketball gods for it. But most of all, thank you to Ateneo and UP.
Thank you to these two teams who have given their blood, sweat, tears, TikTok notifications, and game-day fits for everyone to enjoy. Thank you to them for being part of what has been an absolutely insane 2022, and a major part of why basketball fans wake up with either tears of joy or heartache the morning after.
The next time we’ll get back to college hoops, a lot is going to change and be different. There won’t be any more Lucero dunks and freakishly-athletic layups to bless our feed. No more Schonny Winston mid-range Js to marvel at. No more Ange Kouame MVP-style takeovers in the Finals. But, if I was a betting man, a Chapter 3 to this modern-classic rivalry has to be one of the safest bets to have in Season 86. Whether that’ll be the case or not, to experience two of these chapters in a full calendar year is as great as seeing new sneakers under the Christmas tree.
[Photos by Roy Cabugao]