The Mapua Institute of Technology Cardinals stormed the entire second round of competition in the NCAA Seniors’ Basketball tournament… until they met the Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights.
The Cardinals and the Knights featured in a classic shootout Tuesday afternoon but, in the end, the season hosts ran out of ammunition as Mark Cruz and the Knights advance to the finals, 91-90.
After a sloppy start, the Cardinals blazed through their Intramuros neighbors to a 10-5 lead. The Knights could not find their bearings at the start as they committed a handful of unforced turnovers. Moreover, the Blue and Red squad hardly penetrated the lanes due to the intimidating presence of leading MVP candidate Allwell Oraeme. Senior Kevin Racal stabilized his fellow players as he knocked down threes to bring his team back to the game. However, each Letran basket was answered by a three-pointer by Exe Biteng. Rey Nambatac closed the quarter with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Letran a 21-17 lead.
Back-to-back triples by Biteng and Darell Menina cut the Letran lead to a solitary point midway through the second quarter. After a mandatory timeout, graduating player Josan Nimes was aggressive in going to the hole. Nimes scored four straight points to give his team the lead. As the two teams exchanged baskets and leads, an unnecessary foul by Mark Brana on Mark Cruz closed the quarter that gave Letran a three-point lead at the half, 45-42.
Defense was thrown out of the window in the third quarter. A total of 50 points were scored by both squads with ten coming from downtown. Three straight triples, coming from Biteng and Menina, to give Mapua a 51-47 lead. Big man Jom Sollano tried to keep up with the pace with his inside moves but just as the Knights would set up their press, the Cardinals ran past their opponents for easy conversions. Mark Cruz, just as he has always done this season, scored 13 straight points, highlighted by triple corner threes, to give the Knights a 67-62 lead. Menina and Biteng though continued to sizzle in knocking down two three-pointers while free throws by Nimes gave Mapua a 70-78 lead going into the final quarter.
The two teams continued to trade baskets to start the fourth quarter. After a deadlock at 81-all with 2:43 remaining, Racal was able to find his way in the lane while free throws by seldomly-used JP Calvo gave Letran a four-point cushion. A jumper by Cruz bounced off the rim and dropped to the basket to continue the Letran push. After a putback by Oraeme and a split by Racal from the foul stripe that gave Letran an 88-85 lead, Nimes was able to find a wide-open Biteng triple that was almost in. Cruz though missed two free throws that gave Mapua a chance with 46.5 ticks to go. However, Friday’s hero CJ Isit missed a corner triple and Racal free throws extended the lead to five. However, another putback by Oraeme and late three-pointer by Isit that cut the lead to just a solitary point was left for nothing as .05 ticks only remained in the clock.
After the game, coach Aldin Ayo reflected on the start of the season where no one believed that the team could head into the finals. “Masarap yung feeling. Nobody expected us to be here”, he exclaimed.
The Sorsogon-native confessed that there was no time to celebrate. “After the game, we huddled the team. I told the team na ‘masaya tayo ngayon but we still have a job to do.” This was a sentiment shared by graduating player Mark Cruz. “Gutom talaga kaming lahat. Gusto namin manalo ng championship,” said Cruz who is entering his third NCAA Finals appearance.
Cruz led the way with 24 points on 9 of 21 shooting. He added six boards and six dimes. Kevin Racal also notched a double-double with 19 points and 12 boards.
For the Cardinals, the team had seven players score in double digits with Exe Biteng leading the way with 17 points, all of his field goals coming from downtown. Allwell Oraeme also had a huge double-double with 10 points and 25 boards in the losing effort. He was also able to swat away six shots.
As a team, the Mapua Cardinals shot better from the field in shooting 48% compared to just 36% by the Knights. But the Knights more than made up for it by forcing the hosts to 27 turnovers that led to 30 turnover points.
The Letran Knights, who are making their third finals appearance in four seasons, will wait for the result of the on-going San Beda-Jose Rizal tilt. The Mapua Cardinals will finish at third place in the tournament.
CSJL (91) – Cruz 24, Racal 19, Sollano 16, Nambatac 12, Quinto 10, Calvo 4, Apreku 3, Luib 3, Balanza 0, Publico 0.
MIT (90) – Biteng 17, Nimes 15, Menina 15, Isit 11, Oraeme 10, Nieles 10, Serrano 10, Brana 2, Aguirre 0.
Quarterscores: 21-17, 45-42, 67-70, 91-90.
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