Tight Final Four race seen after unpredictable and wild NCAA opening week

Host San Beda and title contender Mapua are off to a strong start in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tourney, winning their first two games in style that underscored their readiness to contend heavily for the coveted crown currently held by Letran.

The Red Lions opened their title quest by with an 89-85 win over their arch-rivals Knights in the opener then followed it up with a 91-86 victory over the gritty Lyceum Pirates last Tuesday.

Not to be outdone were the Cardinals, who labored for a 74-71 triumph over the Jose Rizal U Heavy Bombers last Sunday then defeated the St. Benilde Blazers 78-68—the first and only double-digit winning margin in the seniors ranks this season—two days after.

Also emerging undefeated so far are top title contender Arellano U and rebuilding San Sebastian which both prevailed in the opening weekend. The Chiefs defeated a Bright Akhuetie-less Perpetual Help Altas side 83-78 while Golden Stags turned back the Blazers 54-49.

While four teams remain unbeaten, a tight race—to the Final Four and the Finals—is starting to shape up underlined by a close average winning margin of 5.625 points per game.

Red Lions’ second-year coach Jamike Jarin readily admitted this year’s competition should be tighter than what most expected. “It just shows how good the competition is, the level of play is and how good the coaches are,” he said.

Letran’s Jeff Napa, one of four new faces this season, echoed Jarin’s observation, convinced the Knights’ early struggle should bode how their rivals have improve immensely.

“Hindi naman kami talaga totally struggling. As I’ve said, we can’t take anyone for granted. Maski nu’ng press conference, sinabi ko na lahat ng team this year malakas. Nagpe-prepare naman kasi ang lahat ng mga ‘yan,” he said.

Mapua mentor Atoy Co also shared the same sentiment, adding the Cardinals have no reason to be complacent despite the sustained performance of reigning league MVP Allwell Oraeme.

“Hindi pupuwedeng mag-relax kasi baka maaksidente,” said the former pro league great. “As a coach, as much as possible, gusto mo tambak para wala ka nang alalahanin sa fourth quarter. Hindi pa talaga ako masaya sa game namin.”

While he sounded encouraged with their best start since he took over in 2013, Co, added the Cardinals remain far from the sharp form he saw last year when they sizzled late in the elimination round and made it back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

“I’m expecting this na dapat 2-0 kami. Sabi ko nga sa kanila, hindi namin ‘to pwedeng pakawalan. I’m happy that we’re 2-0 but I’m not happy with the way we’re playing,” he pointed out. “I’m still looking for last year’s (form), nu’ng last 2-3 games namin. That’s the game I want to see.”

“We have to play as a team for us to be there. kailangan namin maglaro as a team para marring namin yung gusto namin puntahan, ‘yung kalangitan,” added Co with a big smile.

Even Letran’s veteran wingman Rey Nambatac, who provided one of the most impressive offensive performances yet by exploding for a collegiate career-high of 33 points in a 76-72 win over Emilio Aguinaldo College last Tuesday, is convinced the Knights will have their hands
full in their title-retention bid.

“It’s still a long way to go. Marami pang games na lalaruan. ‘Yung last two games, magiging motivation sa amin ‘yun,” said the proud Cagayan de Oro City native.

Letran plunges back to action on Friday against St. Benilde at The Arena in San Juan City and Napa said the Knights should be sharp as ever.

“Again, hindi namin pwedeng i-take for granted ang kalaban. Kailangan namin mas mag-prepare ng maganda para ma-execute ang game plan namin,” he stressed. – By Jerome Lagunzad

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