MANILA – Mapua drew strength from the sweet-shooting duo of Paolo Hernandez and Clint Escamis and its rock-solid defense in the fourth quarter as it downed the College of St. Benilde, 78-67, and claimed the first NCAA Season 99 finals seat at the MOA Arena on Tuesday.
Hernandez and Escamis, best friends since their Mapua high school days, fueled the team’s drive and combined for 16 of the team’s 22 fourth-quarter points as the Cardinals claimed a ticket to the best-of-three finals set either Sunday or Monday.
Hernandez finished with 22 points while Escamis, who will run away with the MVP award this season, had 21.
It helped that the Cardinals held CSB’s spitfire guard Miguel Oczon to just three points in the final period after scoring 10 in the first canto before finishing with 17 points.
“With the help of these two veterans, nagawa namin ito (we did it),” Mapua coach Randy Alcantara said, referring to the Hernandez-Escamis pair. “Depensa nung fourth quarter against Oczon naging susi din (Defense in the fourth quarter was also key to this win).”
With the win, Mapua will make its second finals appearance in the past three seasons.
It also gave the Intramuros-based school a shot at ending a 32-year title drought after its back-to-back crowns in 1990 and 1991.
Interestingly, Alcantara himself was a vital cog in that glorious era.
Now Alcantara is on the cusp of completing a trifecta of triumphs as he tries to add a senior title as a coach to his four championships – two as a player and two as a Mapua high school coach.
“With Clint and Boni (skipper Warren Bonifacio), we’ll do our best makuha this season. Tagal na nag-aasam Mapua, lalo na si coach Randy, na kulang na lang ang seniors championship (we’ll do our best to get [crown] this season. Mapua, especially coach Randy, has been hoping for a long time now to win the senior championship),” said Hernandez, who was part of Alcantara’s two NCAA high school champion squads along with Escamis and Bonifacio several years ago.
For CSB coach Charles Tiu, he was quick to take the blame for the heartbreaking defeat.
“To be honest, I still think it’s a disappointing season although I did tell the guys making the Final Four is already an achievement,” said Tiu, who thanked his seniors including Will Gozum, Miguel Corteza, and Robi Nayve for their service to the school. “I consider it a failure on my part. I told them I’m the one to blame for this."
In the other semifinal showdown, Jacob Cortez delivered a tour de force effort as San Beda smothered Lyceum of the Philippines, 89-68, to force a deciding game for the right to face Mapua in the best-of-three finals.
Cortez was nothing short of electric as he erupted for a career-high 28 points, including nine of the 11 shots he took from the field that averted an early exit by the Lions.
“Sobra happy, buhay pa kami. Focus na kami sa next game (We’re so happy, we’re still alive. Our focus now is the next game), do or die game,” said Cortez, whose father, former PBA stalwart and La Salle star Mike, watched from the sidelines.
San Beda’s mentor Yuri Escueta said they were just totally concentrated on getting this win for nothing less than survival.
“Focused lang kami on this game (We were focused on this game). We have to lock in defensively and focus on it,” he said.
The do-or-die game is set to be held at the Araneta Coliseum on Friday. (PNA)