Nueva Ecija got a scare from Pampanga but kept its poise and won pulling away, 104-89, to move closer toward the North division finals in the OKbet-MPBL (Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League) 4th Season Presented by Xtreme at the Nueva Ecija Coliseum in Palayan City.
The Rice Vanguards saw the Giant Lanterns threaten twice at 75-77 and 77-79, but responded with an 18-6 outburst, capped by a triple by Hesed Gabo, to decide the outcome, 97-83, with 3:44 left.
Will McAloney, Byron Villarias, Michael Mabulac, and Renz Palma also contributed in that span as the Rice Vanguards again flaunted their deep bench.
Bryon Villarias led the Rice Vanguards of Coach Jerson Cabiltes with 20 points and four rebounds, followed by Mablulac with 16 points plus nine rebounds, McAloney with 15 points plus six rebounds, Gabo with 10 points plus 13 assists and Michael Juico with 10 points plus four rebounds.
Following their 24th straight win, including a 21-game sweep of the elimination round and a 2-0 shutout of the Marikina Shoemasters in the quarterfinal round, the Rice Vanguards moved a victory shy of the North finals.
Pampanga got 17 points and nine rebounds from Jammer Jamito, 14 points plus six rebounds from Jayson Apolonio and 12 points plus seven rebounds from John Lorenz Capulong as top gun Archie Concepcion was held to nine points.
Earlier, San Juan-Go for Gold bared its newfound strength and clobbered Pasig, 88-68, also in Game 1 of their semifinal series.
The Go for Gold-backed Knights drew 19 points and seven rebounds from Dexter Maiquez, 11 points and 10 assists from Orlan Wamar, and 10 points each from Judel Fuentes, Marwin Taywan, and Michael Calisaan, who also snagged eight rebounds.
Jason Melano exploded for 26 points, but no other Realtor could score in double figures.
San Juan and Nueva Ecija will try to seal their finals tussle on Friday, November 11, when they seek a repeat over Pasig and Pampanga, respectively, at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig.
Just like Nueva Ecija, San Juan led from start to finish in disposing of Pasig.
The MPBL visits Zamboanga City on Tuesday for the start of the South division finals at the Vitaliano Agan Coliseum. Batangas City Embassy Chill clashes with Rizal Xentromall at 6:30 p.m., followed by the Bacolod Bingo Plus-Zamboanga Family’s Brand Sardines encounter at 9 p.m.