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Nueva Ecija survives Imus, sets up MPBL final showdown vs Basilan


Byron Villarias delivered late as Nueva Ecija held off Imus-Buracai de Laiya’s brave stand, 82-76, in the Chooks-to-Go Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League Invitational semifinals, Thursday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.

Down by three, Byron Villarias poured eight points in a huge 19-3 rally to give the Rice Vanguards a 13-point lead, 74-61, with 3:55 left in the game.

Imus, though, did not go down without a fight.

Banking on the hot hands of Kurt Reyson and Ian Melencio, the Buracai de Laiya-powered team answered with a 13-4 blast to slice the lead to just four with 1:27 left.

Renz Palma and Jhaymo Eguilos then exchanged baskets before Villarias bagged the game with two free throws in the final 13 seconds.

Rice Vanguards head coach Carlo Tan credited their fans that travelled from Nueva Ecija for their critical late rally.

“We’re very, very thankful to Mayor Rianne Cuevas and boss [Bong] Cuevas for bringing in the fans. Maririnig mo talaga, it energizes us also,” expressed Tan.

“You asked a while ago about the fourth quarter run, part of it I’m sure is yung naririnig nila yung crowd,” he added. “Nakaka-fuel yun e, nakakatulong talaga so without that, without the crowd and that extra energy, mahirap din e, I don’t know what the game could have been but they fueled that run.”

Villarias, who put up 10 points in the fourth quarter, finished with 13 points and six rebounds to keep Nueva Ecija spotless in six games.

Michaela Mabulac, who was crowned the MPBL Invitational MVP prior to the game, delivered 17 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, and two steals while JP Sarao added 13 points and eight boards.

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Chris Bitoon had 12 points, eight boards, and four assists.

On the other hand, Leo Najorda pumped 24 points while Melencio poured 22 markers in the loss that ended Imus’ Cinderella run.

Jhaymo Eguilos finished with 12 points and nine rebounds while Reyson added nine markers.

Imus badly missed the services of Mythical Five member Adi Santos, who was hampered by a right ankle injury and ended up playing just four minutes and 24 seconds.

Nueva Ecija will take on another unbeaten squad in Basilan-Jumbo Plastic Medical Depot in the MPBL Invitational final later, Thursday at 8:30 PM.

On the other hand, Imus-Buracai de Laiya will face Pasig-Sta. Lucia in the third place game at 1:00PM.

The Scores:

Nueva Ecija 82 – Mabulac 17, Villarias 13, Sarao 13, Bitoon 12, Gutang 9, Sumang 7, Palma 6, Bulacanag 5, Gozum 0, Dario 0.

Imus-Buracai De Laiya 76 – Najorda 24, Melencio 22, Eguilos 12, Reyson 9, Mangalino 7, Bragais 2, Llagas 0, Rogado 0, Mescalado 0, Tan 0, Santos 0.

Quarterscores: 18-16, 37-35, 53-53, 82-76.

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