MANILA – Nueva Ecija averted disaster at home and blasted off in the endgame to beat Pampanga, 104-89, in Game 1 of their MPBL Northern Division semifinal series on Monday night at the Nueva Ecija Coliseum in Palayan.
Playing for the first time after two weeks, the Rice Vanguards still looked sharp against a Giant Lanterns side that had to survive an epic first-round series finale against the Bataan Risers three nights ago, opening a 60-45 lead with 7:24 left in the third quarter.
Pampanga, however, came alive right after and was just down by two, 77-79, with 7:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The road team, however, lost steam in the end as the host squad reasserted its mastery in the final seven minutes of the game, even stretching the lead to as high as 19, 104-85, with 1:16 left.
Byron Villarias made 20 points on 6-of-11 three-point shooting and two rebounds for Nueva Ecija, which is now 24-0 overall in the season
Michael Mabulac added 16 points, nine rebounds, and three steals, and Hesed Gabo put up 10 points, three rebounds, 13 assists, and two steals.
Jammer Jamito made 17 markers, nine boards, two dimes, and one swipe for Pampanga.
In the first game, San Juan issued a massive statement that they are not to be left out after drubbing Pasig, 88-68.
Entering the postseason as the third seed, San Juan, the 2019 champion, showed why it should not be underestimated by quickly blowing out Pasig, the second seed, through a 22-11 first quarter.
Dexter Maiquez led five San Juan players in double figures with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
Orlan Wamar added 11 points, 10 assists, four rebounds, and one steal.
Jason Melano's 26-point outburst was spoiled as Pasig will return home down 0-1 in the best-of-three league quarterfinal affair.
The San Juan-Pasig rematch will tip off at 9 p.m., right after Game 2 of the Nueva Ecija-Pampanga series at 6:30 p.m on Friday. (PNA)