MANILA -- Since its monumental UAAP title win in 1986, the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons had always looked forward to a reprise.
However, not having kept up with its competition in the years succeeding that championship year made those next seasons quite dismal for the Maroons, as rebuilding from the touted Altamirano-Magsanoc-Paras era had been a letdown.
Until the year 1996 came when Maroon shirts started to fill UAAP venues such as the Blue Eagle Gym, Ninoy Aquino Stadium and Araneta Coliseum once more. Recruiting notable upstarts in the national youth circuit behind the efforts of legendary former coach Joe Lipa and benefactor Rudy Mendoza, the UP Fighting Maroons had been seen as a title contender again with coach Eric Altamirano at the helm.
Reinforcing its top gunner recruited directly from its high school program, Rudy’s son Paolo Mendoza, the Maroons likewise enlisted the services of 1996 Philippine Youth team mainstays ace point guard Joseph "Ogie" Gumatay and imposing big man and soaring leaper Bryan Gahol. This is in addition to prized young ballers Dexter Rocha and Allan Gamboa, shooting marvel Jonathan “Chuchu” Serrano, marksman Patrick Madarang, and reliables Peter Fabie, Bing Victoria, Andrew Lapena, Kelvin de Chaves, Renren Cayetano (younger brother Alan Peter), and Jasper Javier.
The late Gahol, who passed away in 2014 in a vehicular accident, was considered the biggest factor behind UP’s feared surge in Season 59 as he was the dominating force in the paint alongside Gamboa, making it possible for Mendoza and Madarang to snipe away, with Gumatay and Serrano navigating from the backcourt.
The Fighting Maroons were unstoppable and considered a title threat to the dynastic University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers at that time, who had since ruled the UAAP wars for four years. They didn’t disappoint, ending the eliminations in third place with a 9-5 record. For the first time since the playoff format was implemented in 1993, the Maroons were in the Final 4, facing the second-placers and defending champions Tigers, who had the twice-to-beat advantage.
UP showed its mettle in their Final 4 match-up with the imposing UST five, led by future PBA players Chris Cantonjos, Estong Ballesteros, Dale Singson, Richard Yee and Gerard Francisco, keeping the game close until a final spurt by the Tigers made them lose steam with a 56-63 defeat. UST would then advance to the finals, where they annexed their last title in their four-peat against the De La Salle Green Archers.
Season 60 run
Devastated by their loss, the Fighting Maroons entered Season 60 with guns ablaze. With NCAA juniors MVP Jenkins Mesina, Mark Jomalesa, and Edrick Ferrer added to the lineup and now coached by Nic Jorge, the Maroons even ended the first round at 6-1 thanks largely to Mendoza’s scoring binges binges that included a record-setting 48 points in one game against the Adamson University Falcons.
While they floundered in the second round, aggravated by a season-ending injury to Gahol, the Maroons still had enough victories to make it to the Final 4 for the second year in a row in fourth place with an 8-6 record, facing the twice-to-beat Far Eastern University Tamaraws.
In contrast to its previous Final 4 appearance against the UST Growling Tigers that led to an immediate exit, their series against the Tamaraws went the full distance. Undermanned, the Maroons proved doubters wrong with their spirited push against the Tamaraws, which were composed of the streak-shooting Ronald Magtulis, wily and spirited court general Anastacio “Robin” Mendoza, impressive wingman Michael Oliver, defense specialist Edwin Manabat, and three-point dead-eye Edwin Bacani.
Behind Mendoza’s heroics, the Maroons trounced the heavily favored Tamaraws in Game 1, with a thrilling one-point victory, 70-69, forcing a do-or-die match for that UAAP finals ticket.
Closest to finals
After 10 seasons, this was the closest the Maroons got to the UAAP finals. After engaging the Tamaraws to a dogfight with a grippingly close match all throughout the contest, their dream of finally repeating the glory of 1986 was about to come true.
It was dashed, however, with a heartbreaking one-point loss to FEU, eerily with the same final score in their previous outing, only that it went the other way, 69-70, with Magtulis leading the onslaught. FEU would then cop its first UAAP title since Season 55 over La Salle in the finals.
Its once promising stature in the UAAP had since skidded, and UP was never the same through the next two decades.
But, as alumni with the help of more benefactors and sponsors boosted the team with another set of prized additions to the lineup, the UP Fighting Maroons, now under coach Bo Perasol, have reached the Final 4 anew in Season 81.
This story was originally published on the ABS-CBN Sports website.