Redemption had been the battle cry for two teams that shared the rare distinction of being champions in two seasons of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball tournament held in the same year.
For University of the Philippines, it was putting an end to a 36-year title drought.
Ateneo de Manila University, on the other hand, got a sweet payback to reclaim the throne it surrendered seven months prior.
Three years removed from action due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the centerpiece sports of the country’s premier collegiate league returned with a bang kicking off hostilities of Season 84 last 26 March in a bubble set up.
It was a bold undertaking for UAAP, which made its return in the pandemic era under strict health and safety protocols. The league eventually opened its doors to fans albeit in limited capacity.
Despite limited preparations, participating teams were pumped up and players were all eager to get back on the hardwood competing for glory.
Decades-long wait finally over
While most pundits consider the then four-peat-seeking Blue Eagles as favorites to go all the way, the Fighting Maroons led by the core of its 2019 squad and two newcomers in Carl Tamayo and center Malick Diouf slowly built their championship case.
Traditional title contenders De La Salle University and Far Eastern University also made their presence felt in the season that Ateneo looked poised to annex.
But UP had a different thing in mind.
The Blue Eagles dominated the elimination round with 13 straight wins and were just a victory away from an outright finals berth. But the Fighting Maroons spoiled all that.
In a preview of their eventual UAAP championship series, UP prevailed over Ateneo thus avoiding the stepladder semifinals.
Armed with a twice-to-beat advantage Ateneo easily dispatched FEU. UP, meanwhile, went through a wringer as it needed to use its semis incentive to get rid of La Salle in two grueling games.
Then came the rematch of the 2018 finals series between the Blue Eagles and Fighting Maroons.
The second Battle of Katipunan turned out to be one epic encounter.
UP bested Ateneo in overtime to draw first blood. The Blue Eagles got back in Game 2.
Game 3 was a thriller.
In a nip-and-tuck battle witnessed by a 15,132-strong crowd inside the Mall of Asia Arena, the Fighting Maroons wrote history in dramatic fashion.
Sitting out the first two games of the finals due to a knee injury he sustained in the end of the second round, CJ Cansino drilled a crucial trey that helped force overtime as UP’s gamble paid off.
Then it was JD Cagulangan who nailed the three-point shot that ended three and a half decades of wait for the Fighting Maroons.
With time winding down and the game tied at 69, the guard swished in the championship-winning triple off a step-back jumper over the outstretched arm of Ateneo captain Gian Mamuyac with 0.5 of a second left as the maroon-clad side inside the venue erupted into celebration.
UP slayed a giant and crowned itself king.
Just five months after taking the throne, the Fighting Maroons found themselves walking on unfamiliar territory in Season 85.
UP came in seeking to defend its title without veteran Ricci Rivero, who already graduated after Season 84, and Cansino sitting out to recover from a knee injury.
Compared to the previous season, teams had more time to prepare and were able to join pre-season tournaments as restrictions were relaxed.
But it can’t be denied that the Fighting Maroons and the Blue Eagles remained favorites to meet once again in the finals.
Both teams did not disappoint, finishing the eliminations tied on top of the standings with 11-3 win-loss slates.
The Blue Eagles faced a feisty Adamson University Falcons, who booted out the Green Archers in the playoff for the no. 4 seed behind eventual scoring champion Jerom Lastimosa, in the Final Four.
Ateneo proved too much for the exhausted Adamson side as it marched to its sixth straight championship appearance.
UP blasted National University to set up a title rematch against its Katipunan neighbor.
Just like in their finals series months back, the Fighting Maroons took the series opener with graduating Zavier Lucero playing the hero’s role with a performance to remember both on offense and defense.
But UP failed to take advantage of its momentum in Game 2 when it allowed Ateneo to muscle its way to extending the series in a highly-physical match.
The Blue Eagles also spoiled Diouf’s celebration as tournament Most Valuable Player as the big man, who was named Finals MVP in Season 84, was limited to just two points.
Complicating things for the Fighting Maroons was the right knee injury Lucero sustained early in the fourth quarter.
Game 3, as expected, drew a 21,814-strong crowd that rocked Smart Araneta Coliseum despite the match being oddly scheduled on a Monday.
Smelling blood in the absence of Lucero, who despite his injury joined the team in the pre-game shootaround but remained on the bench until the final second of the game, Ateneo quickly broke away from limping UP. The Blue Eagles even built a 20-point lead in the second half.
Showing defiance, the Fighting Maroons fought back and came close within three, 67-70, with 20 seconds remaining off a Harold Alarcon triple.
But Ateneo held on to claim its 12th title overall.
In a final gesture of gratitude for his services, UP coach Goldwin Monteverde fielded Lucero with 0.7 seconds left and the game already decided to shoot a technical free throw.
Lucero made his charities in his final taste of collegiate action drawing applause from players, coaches and fans from both sides in a picture of true sportsmanship among rivals.
UAAP basketball turned out to be one for the books in the year that was.
Two champions in one year. Same finals protagonists.
A rivalry was born.