MANILA – Nueva Ecija began its title defense in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) with a resounding 97-70 win against Laguna on Monday night at the Star Arena in Baliwag, Bulacan.

The Rice Vanguards started the game flat but pulled away in the end to stomp their class over the Heroes.

Down 17-22 after the first quarter, Nueva Ecija erupted for 32 second-quarter points to take a 49-43 halftime lead and then held Laguna to only 27 in the entire second half to seal the blowout.

Byron Villarias led the Rice Vanguards with 17 points while Renz Palma added 11 points off the bench.

Francis Camacho put up 16 points to lead Laguna.

Meanwhile, home team Bulacan completed a successful comeback in the league after scoring a 75-73 win against Sarangani in the nightcap.

Levi dela Cruz scored the game-winner as the Kuyas won't be denied of a victory in their first game back after taking a leave of absence last season.

Dela Cruz stole the ball from Jeff Comia and drove all the way to the basket for a go-ahead layup with 12.7 seconds left.

Alex Desoyo tried to send the game to overtime, but he missed his equalizer as time ran out on the Marlins.

Jerick Nacpil led Bulacan with 23 points on 10-of-15 field goals while Dela Cruz, Daniel de Guzman, and JR Raflores each added eight markers for Bulacan.

Jordan Sta. Ana flirted with a triple-double after tallying 12 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds for Sarangani.

Comia, Danny Marilao, and Nemesis Dela Cruz each had 11 markers with Marilao grabbing 12 boards for his own double-double.

In the first game, Quezon City turned back Bicol, 85-81. (PNA)