Just a few years ago, the UP Fighting Maroons were the laughingstock of the UAAP. It’s the harsh truth: back then, Diliman’s basketball program was simply not up to par with the competition. Opposing fans circled in their matchups with UP as “sure wins.” They were the forgotten university in Katipunan, at least in terms of basketball.
Now, though, we are experiencing a transformation in the UP program. Gone are the days of 0-14. Gone are the bonfire talks for a single win during the season. Instead, the UP community is celebrating their first championship in men’s basketball since 1986. We are witnessing the birth of a new dynasty.
Why do I say dynasty? Well, it’s simple: this team is built for the future. Unlike other teams in the UAAP, the core players of the Fighting Maroons are all on the younger side. This early in their careers, the young guns of UP are proving that they can go toe-to-toe against the behemoths of the league.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the UP program was their wing position. In Season 82, fans thought they had their centerpiece of the future in Kobe Paras. The phenomenal forward bulldozed his way to the MVP conversation in S82, bringing hope to the Maroons. Javi Gomez de Liaño also figured to be integral to their rotation.
However, as with most things, the pandemic changed everything. Instead of continuing his UAAP stint, Paras decided to once again try his luck on the international scene. Gomez de Liaño proceeded to play in the B.League, and then, the PBA. Suddenly, UP had a massive hole at their forward positions. Replacing Paras and the elder GDL’s production seemed to be a monumental task.
Fortunately for the Fighting Maroons, they got two sweet talents to replace their departing talents. Zavier Lucero and Carl Tamayo have been instrumental to their success this season. If their pilot years are any indication, these two will be a big problem for their opponents.
The two couldn’t be any more different in their approach to the game. Lucero is a fireball, volatile, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Blink, and he’s already blasted his way to the paint. On the other hand, Tamayo is a smoldering flame, steady, a constant in the stream of chaos. For every big shot by their opponents, he answers back two-fold.
Together, this yin-yang of the Fighting Maroons has carried them to victory in Season 84. Lucero got his fair share of voters for the MVP race, while Tamayo took home the Rookie of the Year trophy for the Maroons. It was clear from the moment that they started their Final Four run that these two needed to come up big for the team to win it all.
And yet, in their most important game of the season, it was the little guys that picked up the slack when their stars faltered.
Game 3 of the Finals was a nightmare come true for the Fighting Maroons. In the biggest game of their season, their two stars misfired badly the entire game. Tamayo, the ever-reliable scorer, could only muster up six points. Lucero, somehow, was worse, going scoreless the entire game. It seemed like their championship aspirations were doomed.
On the other hand, Ateneo’s big stars were heating up at the right time. Gian Mamuyac was determined to cap off his college career with a ring. SJ Belangel and Angelo Kouame were their usual dominant selves, with Belangel evoking shades of the Ravenas before him. It was a scary sight for the Maroon faithful.
However, two men absolutely refused to let the Blue Eagles take yet another championship from them. One of them was Malik Diouf, who went bonkers all game long, keeping the Maroons in the game with timely buckets. The ex-CEU standout had large shoes to fill with the departure of the former MVP Bright Akhuetie, and he proved he can be that guy for the team.
And yet, it was one of the smallest guys on the floor that stood tall for the Fighting Maroons. JD Cagulangan, the former NCAA Juniors star and SLAM Rising Stars MVP, proved that he belonged on the big stage in overtime. Every time Belangel and Mamuyac sank daggers into UP, Cagulangan was there to drive one deep into Ateneo’s heart.
Cagulangan’s final three-pointer was a statement to the UAAP crowd in more ways than one. Yes, that shot won UP their first crown in over 30 years. But more importantly, Cagulangan’s dagger showed that the Fighting Maroons can win even if their big guns aren’t clicking. Even without Tamayo and Lucero, they found a way to topple the Atenean titans.
There are plenty more unheralded players behind their core that will solidify their position in the UAAP. Harold Alarcon’s gutsy play gave life to UP when they needed it most. CJ Cansino battled his injuries to give a massive boost to their lineup. James Spencer came through with clutch plays all season long. Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea, and Bismarck Lina are young guys that will have a chance to prove their worth next season.
Tamayo and Lucero may get all the headlines, but don’t get it twisted. This team is loaded from top-to-bottom with talent. Even with the departure of team captain Noah Webb and star guard Ricci Rivero, UP still has what it takes to be a top contender for years to come. Lucero said it best after their championship win:
“It’s never just about us or just about me, I had zero points, Carl (Tamayo) had six. That says it right there. Six points combined and look at the guys who stepped up. We’re in a good position, 1 to 16.”
There’s a dynasty forming in Katipunan once again. Now, though, instead of the blue and white that non-Ateneo fans have come to dread, they are clad in the maroon of the University of the Philippines. The Fighting Maroons have arrived at the biggest stage, and they’ll continue to stay there in the near future.
(Photos by John Oranga)