MANILA, Philippines – Struggling yet never lacking in belief, San Sebastian clinched a third straight championship appearance in the 87th NCAA basketball tournament.
Pushed to the edge by a stubborn Letran squad, the Stags relied on hustle and a sturdy defense to eliminate the Knights, 63-56, Wednesday in their do-or-die clash for the second finals berth before a sizeable crowd at the FilOil Flying V Arena in San Juan.
The trio that carried the Stags throughout the season – Calvin Abueva, Ronald Pascual and Ian Sangalang – came through with second-chance baskets as San Sebastian broke away from 55-all in the last 4:28.
The Stags now get a crack of avenging last year’s loss in the finals and reclaim the title they last won in 2009 against the San Beda Lions in the best-of-three championship series starting Monday at the Araneta Coliseum.
“I don’t care if we lost three games because we learned lessons,” said San Sebastian coach Topex Robinson.
“We just had to slug it out, fight it out, rely and trust each other, believe in the system and believe that the game isn’t over.”
The Stags, who again struggled with an 18-of-67 shooting clip, looked to be in control until Letran’s spitfire guard Kevin Alas fired three straight triples to tie the game at 55.
But San Sebastian, cranking the defensive pressure up a notch, held Letran to just a single point the rest of the way before Jovit dela Cruz hit a basket off a steal with 10 seconds left to cap a frenetic endgame sequence that saw the Knights blow three opportunities.
“Kevin Alas is a clutch player and I know they’re not going to give up easily,” said Robinson. “We had to do whatever it takes (to win).”
The Stags responded with Pascual, sputtering on offense in the last three games, hitting a hook shot, before Sangalang made a short stab after grabbing the offensive board.
The 6-foot-2 Abueva tipped in Sangalang’s miss with two minutes remaining for a 61-55 advantage.
The Stags were a shadow of their own fearsome self in the past three games, losing to San Beda twice last week and yielding their twice-to-beat edge to Letran in a 62-70 loss last Monday.
“We were relaxed in the first game (last Monday),” Abueva, who finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds in 36 minutes, said in Filipino. “We prepared for a physical game and we just worked harder this time.”
The Stags led by as many as 12 points in the first half, before Mark Cruz beat the buzzer with a rare four-point play to trim the gap, 28-34, at halftime.
Earlier, St. Benilde-La Salle Greenhills advanced to the juniors finals for the first time since returning to the NCAA in 1998 after a 101-91 triumph over Letran in the stepladder semifinals.
The Greenies, ranked third after the elimination-round, face San Beda in the finals with the Red Cubs owning a thrice-to-beat edge after going unbeaten in 18 games so far this season.
First Game (Jrs)
ST. BENILDE 101—Torres 35, Bonleon 21, Villaruz 17, Vito 8, Ramilo 7, Paras 4, Marcial 4, Yap 2, Sy 2, Barrera 1, Laigo 0, Sta. Clara 0.
LETRAN 91—Luib 22, Serafica 19, Nambatac 19, Villanueva 14, Galleon 13, Catipay 4, Alas 0, Licyayo 0.
Quarters: 23-24, 46-42, 78-61, 101-91
Second Game (Srs)
SAN SEBASTIAN 63—Abueva 20, Sangalang 15, Pascual 11, Dela Cruz 9, Antipuesto 3, Del Rio 2, Vitug 2, Miranda 1, Maiquez 0.
LETRAN 56—Ke. Alas 26, Cruz 11, Cortes 8, Kr. Alas 4, Racal 3, Belorio 2, Dysam 2, Almazan 0, Dysam 0, Espiritu 0, Gabriel 0.
Quarters: 17-16, 34-28, 50-41, 63-56