Cardinals to forge pressure-laden winner-take-all match for NCAA title

It’s going to be anybody’s ballgame come Sunday when San Beda (in white) and Mapua play for all the marbles. —AUGUST DELA CRUZ

It’s going to be anybody’s ballgame come Sunday when San Beda (in white) and Mapua play for all the marbles. —AUGUST DELA CRUZ

Despite a formidable cast of players, San Beda received no individual accolades for the season, and yet the Red Lions fought ferociously to now be in a position to win it all.

The Red Lions stretched the NCAA Season 99 Finals down to the one game that matters most after beating the Mapua Cardinals for the first time on Sunday, 71-65, and fanning the flames of what could be a magical championship run.

“Yes, we didn’t get any award (during the individual awards ceremony). But we’re hoping to get it next week,’’ said San Beda coach Yuri Escueta after his Lions reduced their series with the Cardinals to a decider.

On a day when Mapua firebrand Clint Escamis carted away most of the special awards highlighted by the MVP and Rookie of the Year trophies along with his inclusions to the mythical and defensive teams, the Lions got away with the important victory that forged the decider for Sunday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.

“We really wanted to win this badly. We just stuck together as a team and fought it out until the end,’’ said Jacob Cortez following a game-high 21 points highlighted by a pair of three-pointers in a whirlwind fourth-quarter comeback.

Stalled coronation

Coming through in the clutch, the spitfirish Cortez dropped eight points in that dizzying San Beda fightback, frustrating the yellow-and-red Mapua faithful who were all expecting a coronation.

“That kid (Cortez) is special. After a bad game, you know he’s capable of a big comeback,’’ said Escueta.

“If there’s one thing we learned, we now know we can beat them. But knowing (Mapua) coach Randy (Alcantara), they will certainly adjust and it won’t be easy,’’ said Escueta. “We’ve been in this situation several times before. We should be able to fight with the same intensity in Game 3.”

Needing improvement

Also instrumental was Clifford Jopia, the 6-foot-8 defensive ace who towered above the entire Mapua frontline and plucked down critical rebounds in the closing minutes.

And looking ahead to the rubber match, the Lions know they need to make the most out of free throws awarded to them.

The Lions bungled seven of their last eight freebies that could have padded a seven-point lead in the final frame.

Cortez flubbed a pair during that stretch and went nine-for-18 from the line overall, while Aaron Royo missed four consecutive charities before Peter Alfaro finally broke the impasse by splitting his free throws.

“We have to make those free throws in Game 3, and we will make them,’’ said Escueta.

The Cardinals, though, muffed chances to turn the game around by throwing up bricks from beyond the arc, with Paolo Hernandez misfiring three and Escamis failing to find the target with the clock winding down and finishing 4-for-21 from the field.

Escamis still led the Cardinals with 15 points.

The Cardinals, looking to end a 32-year title drought, were very much in it starting the fourth period with JC Recto playing the game of his life before 22,465 screaming souls at Mall of Asia Arena, scoring six straight points that pushed them to a six-point lead.

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Then suddenly, the hot-shooting Cortez roared back to life, his slithering move in the paint slicing the defense prior to draining back-to-back threes that fueled the Lions in the wild finish INQ


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