After more than two years of absence due to the global pandemic, college basketball came back with a big bang. The long anticipation just made the recent Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) and National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) seasons even more endearing to fans all over the country. In the NCAA, the heavy favorites Letran Knights, led by the very talented and eventual season MVP Rhenz Abando, annexed their second title in a row via a sweep of the Mapua Cardinals in the best-of-three finals. But the bigger triumph clearly belonged to the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons, who ended a 36-year men’s basketball title drought in the UAAP at the expense of the four-peat seeking Ateneo Blue Eagles. The best-of-three championship series is considered by many as probably the tightest in Philippine college basketball history with the Maroons needing extra periods to escape the Eagles in both Games 1 and 3. Game 2, which Ateneo won, was also a slugfest all throughout, and decided only in the final few seconds.
What made UP’s conquest of the UAAP Season 84 even more spectacular is that Ateneo seemed invincible going into the tournament, after an undefeated run in Season 83 and powered by the vaunted Tab Baldwin basketball system. Despite the vastly improved rosters of most UAAP teams, especially UP and La Salle, the Blue Eagles were expected to glide past all competition with relative ease. True enough, the Ateneans were just a win away from sweeping the elimination rounds until they faced the Goldwyn Monteverde-mentored Maroons in the final elims assignment. To everybody’s surprise, the UP boys displayed a near flawless game that resulted in a shocking 84-83 upset of their Katipunan counterparts, and snapped an incredible 39-game winning streak dating back to Season 82. And the rest is history.
Now, something else caught my fancy with regard to this Maroons line-up. I’ll say this out loud. I think this UP team is pound for pound – talent, size, and depth – the strongest college basketball team ever assembled in the Philippines!
I could think of a few teams in the last 30 years that could come close. For instance, San Sebastian College’s 1997 squad that won the school’s fifth consecutive NCAA diadem is indeed a powerhouse cast with the likes of Season MVP Rommel Adducul, 6’6” Banjo Calpito, the dazzling backcourt duo of Buboy Tanigue and Jasper Ocampo, the sweet-shooting Brix Encarnacion and Rommel Daep, and future pros Topex Robinson and Mark Macapagal. How about Ateneo’s own five-peat bunch that took the UAAP by storm from 2008 to 2012? That roster includes Kiefer Ravena, Greg Slaughter, Justin Chua, Nico Salva, Juami Tiongson, and Von Pessumal. Or San Beda’s 2010 team that won all 18 games in the NCAA to wrest the record that still stands today – Rome Dela Rosa, Kyle Pascual, Jake Pascual, Dave Marcelo, Garvo Lanete, the Semerad twins Anthony and David, Anjo Caram, and the late Sudan Daniel.
Part of the University of Santo Tomas’ (UST) four-peat band that posted a 14-0 card in 1993 is pretty impressive as well with the likes of Dennis Espino, Bal David, Rey Evangelista, Patrick Fran, and Chris Cantonjos. As for the DLSU basketball program, which has so many talent-laden teams through the years, I can think of two batches that stand out – the 2001 and 2016 Green Archers. The 2001 group that annexed a fourth straight UAAP crown was made of mostly future pro greats including Renren Ritualo, Mac Cardona, Mike Cortez, BJ Manalo, Willy Wilson, Adonis Sta. Maria, and Joseph Yeo. On the other hand, the 2016 UAAP kings consist of two-time MVP Ben Mbala, Jeron Teng, Jason Perkins, Abu Tratter, Julian Sargeant, Prince Rivero, Andrei Caracut, Thomas Torres, Kib Montalbo, and youngsters Ricci Rivero, Aljun Melecio, Jollo Go, and Justin Baltazar – what a stellar class.
I would say however that none of these teams could hold a candle to the UAAP Season 84 champions. See for yourself.
Let’s start with the new crowd darling, Carl Tamayo. The 6’8” former Gilas big forward was the big hero in the Maroons’ come-from-behind victory over DLSU in the semis that catapulted them to the finals. Unsurprisingly, he was voted Rookie of the Year and part of the Mythical Five in Season 84. Then there’s the Finals MVP Malick Diouf, the 6’11” center from Senegal who held his own against Season MVP Ange Kouame of Ateneo. UP’s surprise prize recruit is former US NCAA Division 2 standout, one-time All-American Team member, and three-time California Pacific Conference First Team member Zavier Lucero. The 6’7” small forward showed his do-it-all abilities in Season 84 that earned him a spot in the Mythical Five. Of course, let’s not forget the now two-time UAAP champion (his first was with La Salle) Ricci Rivero, himself a certified college basketball superstar and former UAAP Mythical Team member (Season 80).
But while Tamayo, Diouf, Lucero, and Rivero are undeniably the biggest names in the roster, the hands down most unforgettable of them all is JD Cagulangan, the Game 3 savior that made all the big plays in OT (8 points), including the game-winning step-back three-point shot that brought the MOA Arena down. The former NCAA Juniors MVP also led the league in assists. Yet again, another big Game 3 hero is the former UAAP Juniors MVP CJ Cansino, who returned from a serious injury to bury the game-tying triple that helped send the game into overtime. Worth mentioning also are two tall prolific gunners and key players in James Spencer and Harold Alarcon.
The rest of the team are all notable players from their previous teams like former Batang Gilas members Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea, RC Calimag, and Bismarck Lina, Fil-Canadian Anton Eusebio, 6’4” guard Brix Ramos, former CESAFI star CJ Catapusan, and veteran leader Noah Webb.
Need I say more?