Fate brought Maroons together for special moment; guts and grit gave them glory
It was “a bitter pill,” Tab Baldwin said. But it felt like there was no recourse but for Ateneo to swallow it.
The Blue Eagles were, Baldwin added, battling against destiny, after all.
“I just felt like [it was] destiny,” said the Ateneo coach. “You know the shots they hit, those aren’t shots that normal teams make in normal games, much less than a championship game.”
If one were to look at where those shots came from, it was perhaps destiny. The big plays that led to a title-clinching 72-69 victory in the UAAP men’s basketball finals got a boost, after all, from a merging of fates.
Out of the ruins of a promising program crushed by an ill-advised training camp in Sorsogon, CJ Cansino, the former University of Santo Tomas (UST) skipper emerged and found his way to Diliman. Cansino would launch a triple that would catch glass and ricochet straight to the basket that tied the game at 59 and purchased for University of the Philippines (UP) five extra minutes in a no-tomorrow match.
“Of course this feels really good,” Cansino said. “I know how it feels to lose [in the Finals].”
Cansino was part of the UST squad that lost to Ateneo for the 2019 championship.
Malick Diouf, who found his way to the Maroons after a celebrated stint with Centro Escolar University in another league, knotted the count one last time in overtime, his slam dunk off a beautiful pick-and-roll manufactured by JD Cagulangan forging a deadlock at 69.
Diouf finished with 17 points and nine rebounds and was named Finals Most Valuable Player.
“I have no words right now,” Diouf said.
And there was Cagulangan. Lost in the shuffling of playing time at La Salle’s roster, Cagulangan looked for a place where he could get minutes to prove his worth. UP gave those to him and then more.
The Maroons gave him trust.
Going into the game’s final play, Cagulangan had missed eight of his 12 attempts from the field.
And yet, as he waved off his teammates for one last screen and roll, the Maroons heeded him, scampering out of the way to give him the space to decide on the fate of an agonizing wait that had lasted 36 years—one that produced multiple winless seasons and twice as many punchlines.
“If you look at my percentages, it was really bad, but the coaches still trusted me,” said Cagulangan. “That was the best thing that happened to us.”
Freed momentarily from his defender, Cagulangan added some more free space with a side skip. And then he let the shot fly.
And as the shot arced midair, everything came together: UST’s decision to set up camp in the midst of a pandemic lockdown, Diouf leaving his comfort zone to join the Maroons, those minutes that dried up for Cagulangan at La Salle.
Change any of that and who knows what would have happened with five-tenths of a second left in Game 3 of a tightly fought Finals series?
Would Ricci Rivero, who bolted a championship program at La Salle, have won two UAAP titles with different schools?
Would Goldwyn Monteverde be able to translate his success in the juniors level to the seniors level?
Who knows? It could have been players finding a home in UP. It could have been destiny.
But to hold fate in place, to glue together all that happenstance into a moment of glory, the Maroons needed something else.
It was there in that crucial rebound that Cagulangan fished out of an air-balled attempt. It was there in the defense that pressured Ateneo’s execution into late shots and shot clock violations.
“They worked extremely hard for it,” Baldwin said.
They willed that triumph too. No matter what odds they faced, “we never gave up,” Cagulangan said.