Mapua University gets another chance to snap a three-decade title drought while San Beda University refused to roll over and die in the Final Four of Season 99 National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament yesterday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Armed with a twice-to-beat advantage, the Cardinals made short work of College of Saint Benilde, 78-67, to advance to the best-of-three finals series and inch closer to the title they last won in 1991.
But before the Cardinals could grab a piece of history, they have to wait as the third-seed Red Lions roared past Lyceum of the Philippines University, 89-68, in the other Final Four encounter.
Jacob Cortez, son of former De La Salle University ace Mike Cortez, erupted for a game-high 28 points for the Red Lions, who still have a chance to win the title they last owned in 2018.
San Beda coach Yuri Escueta emphasized the importance of staying consistent from the opening tip up to the final buzzer.
“I kept telling the boys to keep playing was one of our points of emphasis. Until the final buzzer and until the referee blows the final whistle, we have got to keep playing,” said Escueta, whose wards outhustled the Pirates, 51-36, in the rebounding department.
“If we stopped playing, they won’t. Lyceum is a hard-working team and we have to match that energy and effort.”
The last time Mapua won an NCAA title was in 1991 with future Philippine Basketball Association players Benny Cheng, Kevin Ramas and Ruben Dela Rosa in the roster. Their chief playmaker was Randy Alcantara, who is now guiding the new breed of Cardinals from the bench.
Alcantara, who won two NCAA juniors titles also with Mapua, said having Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player frontrunner Clint Escamis is such a luxury as he brought a massive impact in their playoff campaign.
Escamis, who transferred from University of the East, fired 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals for the Cardinals, who finished the double-round eliminations with a league-best 15-3 record to complete their bounce back from a seven-win performance last season.
“We’re only a win away to the finals so we really had to push ourselves in the last four minutes of the game and trust in our defense. It was a team effort for the players,” Alcantara said.
“Clint and I talked back then and if he’s going to come back, we need to have a goal and not just come back for the sake of it. We all saw how the team changed. He was one of the leaders with Paolo (Hernandez) and (Warren) Bonifacio.”
Hernandez led the way with 22 points while sophomore Marc Cuenco added 10 points for the Cardinals, who used a 14-2 spurt to finally blow away the gutsy Blazers after a tight three quarters.
Migs Oczon finished with 17 points but was heavily bothered by the tight Mapua defense in the crucial stretch while former MVP Will Gozum shut down his collegiate career with nine points and seven rebounds for the Blazers.
Aside from Gozum, also ending their collegiate stints on a sour note are Miggy Corteza, Felipe Marasigan, Prince Carlos and team captain Robi Nayve.