Nueva Ecija weathered a furious endgame rally by San Juan-GFG AICC, taking a thrilling 88-85 win to seal top seed in Pool A of the 2021 Chooks-to-Go MPBL Invitational, Sunday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
With a 3-0 mark and by virtue of beating the Knights, the Rice Vanguards, despite having one game left in their slate, clinched A1 and will face Iloilo in the knockout quarterfinals on December 21.
“That just means that we have handled our games so far but the quarters are different,” said Nueva Ecija head coach Carlo Tan. “It’s knockout games and anything can happen. If we come out with the same effort as today, hopefully we should be okay.”
And the young Rice Vanguards had to dig deep against the highly-regarded Knights.
Nueva Ecija led by as much as 18 points in the third quarter and 67-54 entering the final frame.
Behind Datu Cup Finals MVP Jhonard Clarito and Rhenz Abando, San Juan slowly chopped into the lead, eventually facing just a three-point deficit, 84-81, with 30 ticks left.
“We expected a close game and it won’t be a blowout,” admitted Tan. “Yes, we built a good lead but they are a champion team and they showed why they are a quality team. They pushed the right buttons but we held on which is a good thing.”
But then Roi Sumang happened.
Off a timeout, Sumang got the ball and was matched up with Abando.
The six-year pro drove up to the free throw line before stepping back to beyond the arc. With Abando out of the way, the guard out of University of the East drained a booming triple to give his side a six-point cushion.
“Roi made a brilliant play,” said Tan. “From there, he went Roi’s way. He is a talented guy and we pay the big bucks for his ability.”
Mapua standout Adrian Nocum drained a floater off a timeout to give a little life to San Juan but a split on the stripe by Justin Gutang sealed the deal for Nueva Ecija.
Sumang had 13 points built on three treys with two rebounds, an assist, and a steal for Nueva Ecija while Gutang tallied an all-around game with 15 points, eight rebounds, five blocks, three assists, and two steals.
Both Michael Mabulac and Byron Villarias tallied double-doubles as well with the former having 11 points and 11 rebounds while the latter got 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Renz Palma and Diego Dario added 11 and 10 points, respectively, while workhorse Bobby Balucanag hauled down 10 rebounds for Nueva Ecija as well.
San Juan, who will face Pasig-Sta. Lucia in the quarters, had Nocum leading the way with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Abando got 15 points and six rebounds; JM Calma tallied 14 points and 11 rebounds; Larry Rodriguez delivered 13 points and seven rebounds; while Clarito poured 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Rice Vanguards though have little time to celebrate as they still have one last assignment in pool play as they face Muntinlupa on Monday.
Nueva Ecija 88 – Gutang 15, Sumang 13, Mabulac 11, Palma 11, Dario 10, Villarias 10, Gozum 8, Bitoon 4, Sarao 4, Balucanag 2.
San Juan-GFG AICC 85 – Nocum 18, Abando 15, Calma 13, Clarito 12, Melano 6, Wamar 3, Manzo 2, Abundo 2, Isit 0, Hernandez 0.
Quarterscores: 23-19, 52-37, 67-54, 88-85.