UAAP Basketball

UP takes the spotlight, gets over the Ateneo hump

Naveen Ganglani
UP takes the spotlight, gets over the Ateneo hump

OVER THE HUMP. UP slays Katipunan rival Ateneo for the first time in six years.

UAAP Season 84 Media Team

After six years, UP finally thwarts its Katipunan neighbor Ateneo amid an ongoing bid to end a 36-year search for its next UAAP title

MANILA, Philippines – Nearly eight years ago, the UP Fighting Maroons, its new leadership, students, alumni, and fans celebrated a bonfire at the campus’ famous Sunken Garden on an unforgettable night in Diliman.

They celebrated a singular win – with beers, music, and laughter – following a forgettable winless, 0-14 campaign. 

Many outside the walls of UP scoffed and wondered, “Why?”

What was the point of throwing a festive event to signify a small triumph, amid a culture of losing?

Because for the UP community, the bonfire meant a spark that might just change their Fighting Maroons’ fortunes. 

For the new management, a group of alumni who called themselves “Nowhere To Go But UP,” hoping it would be embraced as the program’s theme, perhaps it would signal the start of a new beginning – where games ended in tears of victory, rather than shrugs of indifference. 

The journey that started with a spark hit a massive landmark on Labor Day 2022, a historic day that the UAAP record books will never forget.

There will not be another flawless campaign. There will be a traditional Final Four. Ateneo’s legendary streak is over. It was magnificent while it lasted, and it ended in a manner of suspense, thrill, and excitement which did justice to its prolonged greatness.

Ateneo went a period of 39 games and 1,299 days without losing once. They defeated all opponents so dominantly in that span that it became both exciting and surprising to see an opponent be just within striking range of the Blue Eagles in the final quarters. 

Very few came close, but no one got the job done. They were invincible.

As for the two teams? The last time UP beat Ateneo was on October 8, 2016. In between then and now, it was a competition between two neighboring universities with mutual respect, but was a one-sided spectacle on the court, with the side in blue always victorious in emphatic fashion.

This time, the script played out different. 

Does it mean a turn of the tide? Has UP made this a legitimate rivalry where the outcome isn’t decided in advance, before both teams even put their jerseys on?

The final answer isn’t here yet, but it may come soon enough. 

UP has climbed past obstacles before. Can it climb the biggest one yet?

Fighting Maroons head coach Goldwin Monteverde, who is a meek gentleman off the court, has accomplished the most important order of business in shaping a UAAP contender: to make his boys believe they are good enough not only to battle with the best, but also beat them.

His rotations are on-point and his ability to shapeshift the game plan on the fly is outstanding. 

That’s how UP looked to begin the finale of this season’s compressed elimination round. 

The environment was set for a contest of epic proportions: an Ateneo side ready for celebration against a UP corner hoping for a miracle. Even La Salle fans stayed on to cheer for UP, rooting against their archrivals making history. 

Shades of pink were present all over the Mall of Asia Arena, with the occasional rallying cries of Leni-Kiko interspersed with “One Big Fight!” and “UP Fight!”

Carl Tamayo was ferocious, displaying skill and capability beyond his age. His hot start allowed UP to go up early. While the national team standout was busy dropping buckets, James Spencer and Malick Diouf asserted themselves defensively and physically, hounding the Blue Eagles with pressure defense every time they made a move, and cleaning up the glass when rebounds were available. 

Pick-and-rolls, hand-offs, and cuts were deterred, leading to broken Ateneo possessions which allowed UP to run.

UP pushed the tempo, hoping to make the game a track meet. Ateneo, which is now a younger team compared to the veteran-laden rosters that included Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and the Nieto brothers Matt and Mike, couldn’t match the Fighting Maroons’ energy and found themselves doubled in scoring for the first time since 2016. 

Ateneo rallied in a way that reminded us it still has superstars to carry the load when the competition gets tough, despite how strong of a unified squad the Blue Eagles are. Angelo Kouame, Dave Ildefonso, and SJ Belangel all took turns putting the team on their back and thrived in their respective roles. 

It should come as no surprise if Kouame is announced as league MVP, because he played every bit of that role both times when the Eagles faced a deficit and when the contest turned into a nail-biter. There were moments he looked simply unstoppable.

But in UP, Kouame has an opponent who can go at him mano a mano. It should come as no surprise that Ateneo’s last two losses – in the UAAP and PBA D-League – were against teams with Diouf, who matched Kouame’s 21 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks with his own 18 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block.

Right now, Kouame is still the more skilled player, but Diouf has the physical gifts that hinder UP’s opponents similar to how Kouame’s presence makes the Blue Eagles a well-oiled machine: length, size, rim protection, and inside scoring. 

UP can offer more size in the frontcourt by playing Diouf with Tamayo or Zavier Lucero, two athletic, MVP-caliber players who took turns exploiting mismatches thanks to their 6’7″ frames. When Tamayo cooled off in the third quarter, it was Lucero’s fiery play that sparked the Maroons to pounce again where they’re the best: in transition. 

“I made some tactical mistakes early and that hurt us,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said post-game. “It contributed to digging a hole for our team.”

The Eagles, thanks in part to using a zone, settled in the game and erased their early deficit quickly. It was a nip-and-tuck affair by the third period. What was surprising was that the usual knockout blow from the Eagles never landed, in large part because the Maroons always had a counter. 

JD Cagulangan was superb both as a scorer and playmaker. CJ Cansino, before hurting his knee, had his offensive bursts, and so did Ricci Rivero, although many in the UP crowd sounded unhappy with his decision-making late in the game.

Even when Ateneo went up by 4 in the final minutes, UP responded like finals contenders: calmly and with precision. Diouf knocked in critical free throws then helped UP get three consecutive defensive stops against an elite ball-moving team who had issues closing the deal because they were unable to find openings. 

When it was time for a hero to step up, Spencer answered the call, like he did time and time again in low-key fashion all throughout the game. That’s the best part about the Aussie standout and why he’s so integral for his team’s ultimate goal: he can provide anything Coach Monteverde requires to win game-to-game, while remaining a low-maintenance player.

The ultimate glue guy. Every aspiring champion needs one.

“I’m just so happy we are seeing what the team is capable of, and we really showed that this UP team is something else, as long as we listen to coaches, stick to our game plans, stick to the system, and trust our teammates,” Rivero said after the game.

It’s fair to criticize some of Rivero’s decision-making, particularly the step-back threes, but there’s no denying he’s UP’s best option for late-game free throws, precious in college basketball’s most heart-stopping moments. 

On Sunday evening, May 1, with the chance to make history, Rivero stepped up to the foul line, his team down one, and calmly made both. It takes guts to accomplish that.

“One thing good for me earlier was that our team stayed as a team no matter how close the game was,” Monteverde said in a mix of English and Filipino.

After the game, in a brief private chat, the first-year UP coach admitted he wasn’t celebrating the victory. Was he happy at what his team achieved? Of course, but his thoughts drifted immediately to the Final Four, where a battle with La Salle awaits. 

UP has the twice-to-beat edge, but recent history will show that doesn’t secure a sure ticket to the finals.

A letdown before the expected rematch would tarnish a promising season. Monteverde knows this, and will emphasize to his boys that it must be avoided.

This UP team is better than the one from Season 82, both in talent and symmetry. Truth be told, it’s also better than the one from Season 81. Never has UP come this close since 1986 to legitimately having a claim to be the UAAP’s best. All this time, Ateneo stood in their way. They still do, even after this latest result. 

But for the first time in a long time, the Fighting Maroons can look them in the eyes and say: “We’ve beaten them before, why can’t we do it again?” –