At the edge of despair, of weariness, and of a five-point lead that looked fatal considering it was erected at the intersection of a formidable foe’s growing momentum and dwindling time, University of the Philippines (UP) had every reason to just crumble in defeat.
No way, said JD Cagulangan.
They had already done their time. Thirty-six years to be exact.
On Friday, Cagulangan made sure all that agony would come to an end, rocking the coliseum with his endgame heroics, including a game-winning triple in the final second that lifted the Maroons to a 72-69 victory against the Ateneo Blue Eagles in Game 3 of the UAAP Season 84 men’s basketball finals at Mall of Asia Arena.
“It feels really great,” Cagulangan said. “We’re finally champions.”
“At that given moment, I had no doubt that if he had the ball, he would execute the play,” said rookie UP coach Goldwyn Monteverde. “And he did.”
The Maroons ended a 36-year wait for a crown and the defending champions’ three-year, iron-grip rule of the country’s most glamorous varsity league by closing out with eight unanswered points—all of which Cagulangan had a hand on—before a mixture of joyous fans in maroon and a shellshocked Ateneo faithful.
“We sated the hunger [of the UP community],” said Bo Perasol, the former Maroons coach who constructed the squad and handed the bench duties to Monteverde. “I hope we don’t have to wait for another 36 years [for another title].”
That’s a worry for another day. Friday was about celebrating the moment a new UP hero—one who headed to Diliman when he couldn’t find his place in the sun amid La Salle’s crowded rotation—wrote his name in Maroons lore.
Down five with 1:40 remaining, Cagulangan delivered hope in a steel-nerved three-pointer that trimmed the deficit to 67-69. With less than 90 seconds left in the clock, the Maroons’ defense held on in the next play, providing UP with an opportunity to knot the count.
Cagulangan, pounced on that chance, drawing the defense’s attention away from Malick Diouf and then feeding the reed-thin center for a slam that knotted the count at 69.
Ateneo’s Dave Ildefonso next missed a pop-up jumper, putting the ball back in the hands of UP—and of Cagulangan. Waving off his teammates, the gutsy playmaker dribbled past a screen and then side-stepped for an open triple, which he drained with five-tenths of a second remaining, eliciting a roar from the Maroons side of the 15,132-strong crowd that shook the bayside arena. And with that, a dynasty that seemed guaranteed an extended run came crashing.
“If you look at my percentages, it was really bad, but the coaches still trusted me,” said Cagulangan, who finished with a paltry 4-of-12 clip from the floor.
It was actually a night when transferees rescued the Maroons.
Diouf, the former Centro Escolar standout, finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and three steals and was adjudged Finals Most Valuable Player.
CJ Cansino, a former University of Santo Tomas captain who returned to action after spending Games 1 and 2 in the injury list, also drilled in a crucial game-tying three that tied the game one last time in regulation and finished with 14 points.
Cagulangan chipped in 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals.
SJ Belangel led the Blue Eagles with 27 points. Ange Kouame added 12 more with 14 rebounds, while Gian Mamuyac added 10 and six rebounds.
Belangel and Mamuyac conspired to put Ateneo on the cusp of a fourth straight crown. Belangel knocked in a basket while Mamuyac turned an Ildefonso pass into a corner three that dropped UP into that five-point hole.
That was when Cagulangan willfully took the reins and guided UP to the epic triumph.
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