Hesed Gabo struck when needed the most as Nueva Ecija overcame Zamboanga, 81-75, in the opener of the OKBet-Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League 4th Season best-of-five finals showdown late Friday at the Nueva Ecija Coliseum in Palayan City.
Gabo delivered the explosion, including a banking dagger triple that cemented a 76-76 lead in the final 47 seconds.
The former Mapua Cardinal registered 18 of his 22 points in the final 10 minutes to go with six rebounds and six assists to frustrate the Zamboanguenos, who gamely battled the favored Rice Vanguards from the get-go.
Nueva Ecija unleashed a 9-1 run to close the third quarter with an eight-point lead, 56-48.
But Zamboanga, behind the heroics of Jaycee Marcelino and Jhapz Bautista, retaliated with a seven-point bomb to tighten the game once again, 55-56.
Zamboanga forged the last deadlock at 60 but Byron Villarias knocked down a three-pointer followed by a pair of charities by Gabo to secure the win.
Villarias also shone with 19 points while Michael Mabulac, who became the 13th member of the league’s 1,000-point club, chipped in 14 markers and five rebounds before fouling out with 1:25 left.
Will McAloney also did his part with 11 points and five rebounds.
Zamboanga drew 15 points and six rebounds from Chris Dumapig and 12 points each from Marcelino and Bautista while Jayvee Marcelino added 11 markers.
Hundreds of Nueva Ecija fans who could not be accommodated at the venue contented themselves watching via a giant screen at an open space provided by the Local Government Unit led by Mayor Rianne Cuevas.
Nueva Ecija will try to make it back-to-back against Zamboanga in Game 2 on Monday at the same venue before the series flies to Zamboanga on 9 December.