Nueva Ecija turned it up late to dispatch Iloilo, 84-67, to enter the semifinals of the Chooks-to-Go Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League Invitational, Wednesday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
The Rice Vanguards led by as much as 18 points, 68-50, off Ael Banal’s free throws in the waning moments of the third frame.
Aaron Jeruta trimmed the deficit to nine in the 5:16-mark in the fourth, but Byron Villarias scored five consecutive points to put to 14.
“Overall from the start the team has been very enthusiastic,” said Nueva Ecija head coach Carlo Tan. “There’s a good mix of veteran and youth in the team like Justin [Gutang] and Will [Gozum] seems to be the youthful energy and players like Mike [Mabulac] and gives you that stability in the team.
“The players are happy, the bosses are happy, so the players are happy again because the bosses are happy,” he added about the team owned by Mayor Rianne Cuevas.
Michael Mabulac led the assault, scoring a game-high 17 points and hauling down 11 rebounds in 29 minutes and 56 seconds of action while Villarias chipped in 16 markers to go along with eight boards.
John Paul Sarao added 10 points and five boards while Chris Bitoon scattered six points, nine assists, and seven boards.
Banal, on the other hand, was thrown out of the match after committing a technical foul for faking a foul and an unsportsmanlike foul. His suspension for the semis match is currently on appeal.
Over at the other side, Levi Hernandez’s 26-point outing went down the drain as the Unite Royals bowed out of competition.
Nueva Ecija will face Imus-Buracai de Laiya in the semifinals later at 10:00 PM.
Nueva Ecija (84) – Mabulac 17, Villarias 16, Sarao 10, Gozum 9, Palma 9, Dario 6, Sumang 6, Bitoon 6, Gutang 3, Banal 2, Balucanag 0.
Iloilo (67) – Hernandez 26, Jaime 9, Gumaru 6, Vito 5, Inigo 4, David 4, Mahari 4, Jeruta 3, Racho 3, Taywan 3, Javelosa 0, Maguliano 0.
Quarterscores: 20-16, 43-32, 70-56, 84-67.