Maroons UP Fighting Maroons: back in the UAAP men’s basketball throne. UAAP photo

No way to go but up for Maroons

May 16, 2022 Theodore P. Jurado 614 views

IT was one UAAP men’s basketball championship to remember for the once-moribund University of the Philippines.

Putting an exclamation point to a long and agonizing 36-year title drought Friday night, the Fighting Maroons endured being one of the league’s favorite whipping boys at one point during that span – even celebrating with a bonfire after ending a 27-game losing streak in 2014.

There was also heartbreak like in 2004 when UP, led by Marvin Cruz and Toti Almeda, rose from losing its first six games by winning six a row before falling short in its bid to make it to the Final Four.

At one point in the 90s, the Maroons were contenders, making it to the Final Four in back-to-back seasons (1996 and 1997) behind Paolo Mendoza and the late Bryan Gahol. But UP saw its quest to go deeper was foiled by University of Santo Tomas, which was dominating the UAAP during that time, and traditional powerhouse Far Eastern University.

When the Maroons finally made it to the league’s biggest stage in 2018 with a talented crew led by Paul Desiderio and Bright Akhuetie, UP saw that it has a lot of catching up to do after getting swept by Ateneo, which has began to build another dynasty.

The following year saw the Maroons make it to the top four, but saw their title hopes vanish into thin air after losing to the Growling Tigers twice in the step-ladder stage, where James Spencer missed a potential game-tying triple that could have sent the semis decider into overtime.

Then the pandemic came, as former league MVP Akhuetie, Kobe Paras and brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño, who all played key roles in UP’s ascent to become title contenders, with all the uncertainties surrounding the league’s restart, have decided to forego their playing eligibility, leaving doubts whether the Diliman-based dribblers will stand a chance to contend for the crown.

Still, the Maroons were able to put up a team that could challenge the powerhouse Blue Eagles to the throne, as decorated high school mentor Goldwin Monteverde was appointed to handle the squad in lieu of Bo Perasol, who was promoted as basketball program head. They were busy in upgrading the roster during the long hiatus by getting juniors standouts Carl Tamayo, Gerry Abadiano, Terrence and Harold Alarcon.

Senegal’s Malick Diouf, Xavier Lucero, CJ Cansino and Joel Cagulangan also made their much-talked transfer to UP, while Ricci Rivero has decided to stay put for one final shot at a crown.

Their efforts bore fruit, as the Maroons are back on top for the first time since 1986 with a star-studded squad led by Benjie Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc.

Witnessed by the maroon-clad faithful including Eric Altamirano, who was named the most outstanding player in the Season 49 title series, UP ended Ateneo’s three-year stranglehold with a 72-69 overtime win before 15,132 fans at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Monteverde became the latest rookie coach to win a championship right on his first try, following the footsteps of Aldin Ayo for La Salle in 2016, Juno Sauler also for La Salle in 2013, Pido Jarencio of UST in 2006, Bert Flores of FEU in 2005 and Franz Pumaren for La Salle in 1998.

Tamayo, the Maroons’ new tower of power since Paras, is happy to be part of history that will be talked about in the years to come.

“Talagang walang bumitaw and then after 36 years, nakuha namin ang championship ulit para sa UP. Sobrang blessed kami. Sobrang binigay sa amin ni God ito,” said Tamayo.

Cansino, who banked a triple late in regulation that forced extra session, is delighted to be part of the winning side. In his UAAP debut in 2019, Cansino was part of the UST team which placed second behind Ateneo.

The hardwork and sacrifices that Maroons put on starting with the training bubble has paid off.

“Kasi, grabe sila mag trabaho e, makikita mo na gustong gusto nila din talaga. At siyempre nung sinabi ni coach Gold na if kaya mo, ikaw mag-decide,” said the 22-year-old Cansino, who was dealing with bone bruise on his right knee in the past two weeks.

“Yung tiwala niya sa akin, sabi ko ita-try ko. Kaya sobrang saya ko, dahil iyun nga, kahit may injury ako nakatulong ako sa team,” he added.

In his swan song for the Maroons, Rivero, who also won a UAAP title for the Green Archers in 2016, savored this personal milestone.

“It’s such an honor to be part of this team, to be handled by Coach Gold (Monterverde) and the entire coaching staff and the people behind the team. Sobrang thank you sa inyo,” said Rivero.

“I’m just really blessed that I started my UAAP career as a champion and ended it as a champion as well,” the 23-year old swingman added. By Theodore Jurado