Pampanga and San Juan fashioned out contrasting victories over their respective rivals on Friday at the start of the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League Fifth Season semifinal round at the full-packed Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center in San Fernando, Pampanga.
Pampanga imposed its superior roster in dumping Caloocan, 74-63, while San Juan nipped Nueva Ecija, 86-82, to inch closer to a championship showdown.
Flaunting their deeper, taller roster, the Pampanga Giant Lanterns were hardly in trouble in thrashing the Caloocan Batang Kankaloo in the nightcap that shoved them within a win of the North Division finals.
Earlier, the San Juan Knights clawed back from a 14-point hole in the third quarter to trip the Nueva Ecija Rice Vanguards and put the defending champions on the brink of early ouster from the title race.
The hometown crowd, of course, was more interested in how Pampanga would fare against veteran-laden Caloocan.
They weren’t disappointed as the Giant Lanterns, behind the glowing performances of Justine Baltazar, Louie Sangalang and Encho Serrano sealed the outcome with a 70-41 spread as early as in the final quarter.
Drawing 15 points from Paul Sanga the rest of the way, including nine in a 14-point cluster, Caloocan did manage to make the score more respectable in the end.
Baltazar, the MVP race pacesetter, posted 17 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, three assists to run away with the best player honors and lift the Giant Lanterns to their 13th win at home.
Sangalang and Serrano added nine points each, while Arwind Santos and Neil Tolentino contributed eight points each for Pampanga Gov. Dennis Pineda, also the Giant Lanterns’ head coach.
Pineda said he is focused on disposing of Caloocan first before thinking of which team the Giant Lanterns are going to face in the division finals, where San Juan suddenly sprung to life behind the sterling plays of Orlan Wamar and the clutch hits of Nikko Panganiban and Marwin Taywan.
Wamar drove in with 32 seconds left and then found an open Taywan for the game-clinching triple 14 seconds later as San Juan matched its Game One victory over Nueva Ecija in last year’s North Division finals.
San Juan dropped the next two games after that, however, and Nueva Ecija proceeded to beat South Division champion Zamboanga Family’s Brand Sardines for the national title.
Nueva Ecija surged ahead, 50-36, early in the third quarter, but San Juan, behind Zach Huang and Panganiban unloaded 13 points against a lone basket by Will McAloney to threaten at 57-59.
Panganiban poured 11 points in the fourth quarter, while Calisaan added five to help frustrate Nueva Ecija, which regained the lead at 82-81 following a triple by Byron Villarias with 44 seconds to go.
Although San Juan Coach Randy Alcantara said teamwork and team effort gave the Knights the win, he reserved special words for Wamar.
“He is small, but with a big heart,” said Alcantara, referring to his 5-foot-6 prized playmaker.