Long wait for title crack over for Cards after nipping of Lions
Mapua coach Randy Alcantara threw his arms on a teary-eyed Toby Agustin and Adrian Nocum after the final buzzer sounded, a poignant yet triumphant moment that signaled the return of the Cardinals to the NCAA men’s basketball Finals after over three decades.
Agustin just swished two of the most important free throws of his career with 6.4 seconds left and the Cardinals bore down on San Beda gunslinger James Kwekuteye in one last defensive stop to squeeze past the Red Lions, 70-67, in their win or go home semifinal showdown on Wednesday.
“We fought hard to the end and we never gave up. This team is out to prove something, our players are here to prove something,’’ said Alcantara, who played for the Cardinals when they captured the school’s last two championships back in the 1990 and 1991 seasons.
They thus advanced to a best-of-three title encounter with defending champion Letran beginning on Sunday in a series dubbed “The Battle of Intramuros’’ at Filoil Flying V Centre.
And Alcantara and his gritty bunch will have to prove themselves again there as the Knights will come into that playoff without a loss and with the highest confidence.
“I consider ourselves as the underdogs. We will prepare hard for this and hopefully our efforts will bear fruit in the end,’’ said Alcantara.
The win knocked out the Lions from the title series for the first time in 15 years. San Beda won in 11 of those trips and was tagged as the favorite coming into its KO match with Mapua.
San Beda had a chance to take the decider into another overtime after wiping out Mapua’s twice-to-beat edge in Game 1, but Kwekuteye’s desperation three came up short at the buzzer.
And with the experience gained by top Cardinals Paolo Hernandez, Brian Lacap, Warren Bonifacio, Arvin Gamboa and the support cast of Nocum and Agustin, Alcantara will have some key pieces coming into the title series.
Hernandez’ three-pointer capped a ferocious comeback by the Cardinals from seven points down midway in the fourth. He drilled another basket in the lane that put Mapua ahead by three with less than two minutes remaining.
Gamboa, a power forward with multiple skill sets, then drove to the teeth of San Beda’s defense with 33.7 seconds left, giving the Cardinals a breather before Agustin sank his freebies that eventually pegged the count.
Gamboa led the Cardinals with 13 points and 10 rebounds, Lacap also contributed 13 while Hernandez added 11, seven of them coming in the decisive fourth.
Yukien Andrada fired four triples and topscored with a career-high 19 points for the Lions, who drew nine points and 15 rebounds from JB Bahio.
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