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MOMENT OF TRUTH — Mapua, Lyceum favored as NCAA Final Four erupts

Enoch Valdez of Lyceum, Will Gozum of Saint Benilde, Clint Escamis of Mapua and Jacob Cortez of San Beda are tipped to lead their respective teams when NCAA Season 99 Final Four unwraps.  | PHOTOGRAPHs COURTESY OF NCAA

Games today:

(Mall of Asia Arena)

1:30 p.m. — Mapua vs Saint Benilde

3:30 p.m. — Lyceum vs San Beda

 

Mapua University and Lyceum of the Philippines University aim to barge into the finals when they battle separate foes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Season 99 men’s basketball tournament Final Four today at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The Cardinals, who finished the elimination round on top with a 15-3 win-loss record, will face Season 98 finalist College of Saint Benilde at 1:30 p.m. while the No. 2 Pirates, who finished with a 13-5 record, will take on third seed San Beda University at 3:30 p.m.

The Cardinals and the Pirates hold twice-to-beat edges but should the Blazers and Red Lions pull off an upset, the sudden-death duels will be held on Friday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

But if Mapua and Lyceum makes short work of their respective foes, they will book a best-of-three finals series for the first time ever. It will also be the first time since 2002 that either San Beda and Letran College will not be involved in the titular showdown.

After a forgettable campaign in Season 98, the Cardinals picked themselves up and displayed tremendous discipline on both ends behind the core of Mapua high school championship squad of Paolo Hernandez, Warren Bonifacio and Clint Escamis.

Escamis, who transferred from University of the East, is currently the league’s scoring leader after averaging 16.28 points in the elimination round and is making a case for himself to be this season’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Blocking the Cardinals’ path to the title is last year’s finalist Saint Benilde, which finished the elimination round with an 11-7 record and boasts the core of Migs Oczon, Miggy Corteza, Prince Carlos, team captain Robi Nayve and reigning MVP will Gozum.

 

‘We don’t even look like a playoff team to be honest right now.’

 

While Mapua has a golden shot at returning to the finals, head coach Randy Alcantara said they will not be complacent, especially after a heart-stopping 77-74 win over host Jose Rizal University last week.

“We wanted to get into the Final Four with high morale and we needed to win those close games heading into the semifinals,” said Alcantara, who was part of the last Mapua team to win an NCAA title in 1991.

For Blazers tactician Charles Tiu, everybody has to be in sync and work together if they want another another crack at the title.

After ending its elimination round with a 69-77 loss to Emilio Aguinaldo College, Saint Benilde is facing the tough task of beating a powerhouse Mapua side twice to make a return trip to the finals.

“Nobody’s playing together, effort’s not there, everybody is getting mad at one another, nobody wants to do the little things. They’re still probably hung up from making the finals last year but that’s long gone,” Tiu said.

“We don’t even look like a playoff team to be honest right now.”

Meanwhile, Lyceum, under the guidance of head coach Gilbert Malabanan, has a chance to return to the finals after a five-year drought.

With skipper Enoch Valdez, Shawn Umali, JM Bravo and Mclaude Guadaña at the helm, the third-year tactician said the key is to treat the game as a do-or-die match.

“I’ll be going to remind my players that this is a do-or-die game, not a twice-to-beat game. We don’t want to have another game,” Malabanan said.

“Expect the Pirates to be hungrier than ever. That I can promise you on Tuesday.”

San Beda, backed by the second-beast scoring leader Jacob Cortez with an average of 15.39 points, Yukien Andrada, and rookie big man Jomel Puno, is expected to be a tough nut to crack after getting into the third seed with a 12-6 slate highlighted by a four-game winning streak in the final stretch of the eliminations.

After beating Saint Benilde, Jose Rizal University, Lyceum and Letran in their last four games, Red Lions head coach Yuri Escueta is optimistic over their chances.

 

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