MANILA, Philippines -- Just four months after ending a 36-year title drought in the UAAP, the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons now have their sights set on a second consecutive crown.
UP dethroned Ateneo de Manila University in a classic finals series to conclude Season 84, with JD Cagulangan etching his name in history by drilling the three-pointer that ended nearly four decades of heartbreak for the Fighting Maroons.
But according to the UP players, it didn't take them that long to get over the feeling of winning a championship.
"I don't think it lasted that long," UP veteran James Spencer said of their "championship high," in a recent interview on "The Game." "As soon as we won it, we kinda went straight to the next thing."
"We knew we had the opportunity to go back-to-back, so that was what our minds were, pretty much a week after the championship," he added.
The Fighting Maroons are bringing back virtually the same team that won it all in Season 84 for their title defense in Season 85, which starts on October 1 against De La Salle University.
Their key loss is veteran guard Ricci Rivero, who is now playing in Taiwan. CJ Cansino, one of the heroes in Game 3 of the UAAP Season 84 finals, will sit out the tournament to recover from a knee injury.
But Cagulangan, Finals MVP Malick Diouf, and reigning Rookie of the Year Carl Tamayo are back for another go, along with versatile forward Zavier Lucero who turned down a host of offers from professional teams to help UP defend its crown.
They also added Filipino-American forward Henry Galinato Jr., who will be a one-and-done player for the Fighting Maroons.
The Fighting Maroons were busy in the offseason, competing not just in local tournaments but also traveling to South Korea to play professional teams in tune-up matches. They went 1-4 against Korean Basketball League (KBL) teams, with their lone win coming against the Ricardo Ratliffe-led Jeonju KCC Egis, 83-82.
The UP players believe that the eventful build-up to the UAAP is just what they need to prepare them for the competition.
"I think our offseason's been pretty good," said Spencer. "Most of the team is the same, so I think our preseason games, playing a lot of games and even the trip to Korea was quite helpful in our quest to get ourselves in and have a good preparation for the season."
No player was busier than Tamayo, who played several games for the Philippine national team while still fulfilling his duties with UP. He suited up for Gilas Pilipinas against Lebanon in the fourth window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers, then flew to South Korea to join UP in their tune-up games.
The forward dismissed concerns about fatigue, however. Instead, he touted the improvement that he gained in the offseason, where he got to play with the country's top professional players as well as Filipino-American NBA star Jordan Clarkson.
"Siyempre, 'yung pagod andoon na naman talaga 'yun, 'yung travel na galing kang Lebanon, then after a day, straight kaagad ng Korea. 'Yung pagod, andoon naman," he acknowledged. "Pero, every time naglalaro ako sa UP, masaya akong ginagawa ko 'yun, so parang 'yung pagod, natatatakpan naman ng saya ko para maglaro sa team."
"Lagi ko ngang sinasabi, bata pa naman ako para isipin 'yung pagod. I think 'yung learnings na nakuha ko, 'yun ang mas binigyan ko na lang ng pansin, or mas inisip ko. Kasi mas marami akong natutunan noong mas marami akong opportunity na makapaglaro," he added.
All eyes will be on UP in UAAP Season 85, as the Fighting Maroons enter the season with the unfamiliar tag of defending champions.
The Fighting Maroons believe they are well-prepared to defend their crown, even though they acknowledge that there is now a bulls' eye on their collective backs. Ateneo, the dethroned champions, had a similarly busy offseason to prepare their bid to regain their crown.
De La Salle University, which was two minutes away from beating UP in the Final 4, sent a warning sign to the league by winning the PBA D-League Aspirants' Cup.
Tamayo insists that they are ready for the pressure that comes with defending their championship, thanks to the mentality instilled in them by head coach Goldwin Monteverde.
"Lagi kaming nire-remind ni Coach Gold na as long as gagawin namin lahat ng makakaya namin, kung anong mangyayari sa season, magiging masaya naman kami sa kung anong magiging result," said Tamayo.
"Basta, as long as ibibigay namin lahat ng makakaya namin. Maging competitive kami, at 'yun lang, just give our best this upcoming season para mabigyan ng magandang laban bawat laro."
Catch replays of UAAP Season 84 games via the UAAP Varsity channel on iWantTFC, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.