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Giant Lanterns Shine Bright: Pampanga triumphs as MPBL Fifth Season Champions

Pampanga withstood the best Bacoor could offer and emerged victorious, securing the 2023 MPBL (Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League) Fifth Season national crown at the Strike Gymnasium in Bacoor, Cavite, with an 82-77 win on Saturday.

Hounded by the Strikers up to the homestretch, the Giant Lanterns’ Justine Baltazar and Encho Serrano rose to the challenge, combining for eight points against a free throw by Bacoor to seal their third straight win, 78-70, with 50 second left and cut short the best-of-five affair.

The Giant Lanterns dominated the Strikers in Game One, 71-58, and survived Game Two, 68-65, at the Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center in San Fernando, Pampanga.

Pampanga thus became the first MPBL team to blank its National Finals rival, shadowing the championship trips of Batangas in 2018, San Juan in 2019, Davao in 2020 and Nueva Ecija in 2022.

Bannered by Baltazar, who was the runaway MVP in the regular season and the Finals, Pampanga topped the elimination round with a 26-win, 2-loss card en route to a sterling overall record of 35-2 this year.

Pampanga posted 2-0 sweeps over Marikina and Caloocan in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, and duplicated the feat against San Juan in the North Division Finals.

Atoning for his poor performances in the first two games, Serrano poured 16 of his 24 points in the second half to earn Game Three best player honors over Game Two best player Archie Concepcion, who contributed 18 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, and Game One best player Kurt Reyson, who chipped in 13 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists.

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Although not feeling well, Baltazar still got his double-double with 11 points and 19 rebounds on top of 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block. The 6-foot-8 center averaged 12.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2 steals.

Other Golden Lanterns who delivered for Gov. Dennis Pineda, also Pampanga’s head coach, were MJ Garcia with 9 points and Allen Liwag with 4 points and 11 rebounds.

Bacoor, the South Division champion, got 20 points from Jhan Nermal, 15 from Kwekuteye, and 11 from Jhaymo Eguilos, who added 8 rebounds. Joel Lee Yu tallied 7 points, Jammer Jamito 6 and Mark Yee 5 plus 10 rebounds in the losing effort.

MPBL Founder and CEO Manny Pacquiao awarded the championship trophy to Pineda and team owners Cong. Dong Gonzales and AG Gonzales.

According to Pineda, who was named Coach of the Year, he told his wards that if they could lead in the fourth quarter, the crown would be theirs.

True enough, once the Giant Lanterns regained control at 70-66 on a triple by Concepcion, they did not yield it back.

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