Lyceum repeats over Letran on MJ Ayaay heroics

Pulling the rug from under defending champion Letran last week speaks volumes on Lyceum. Repeating over the struggling Knights further boosted the notion that the Pirates are for real.

Sophomore wingman MJ Ayaay soared high for the game-clinching lay-up over a phalanx of Knights defenders with 3 seconds left as the Pirates escaped with a thrilling 68-66 victory on Thursday night to tighten the Final Four race in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tourney at The Arena in San Juan City.

Proving their 75-72 win in their initial meeting last August 5 was no fluke, the Pirates charged back from 10 points down midway in the fourth canto behind Ayaay, who scattered 12 of his 16 markers in the stretch highlighted by that game-clinching lay-up that left the Knights stunned no end.

“We just fought hard and we just slugged it out with one of the top teams. It says about our character,” beamed Lyceum coach Topex Robinson as his wards notched their second straight win and fifth overall in 10 matches, tying Letran and Jose Rizal U from fifth to seventh spots while moving a full-game behind fourth-running Mapua (6-4).

The way the Pirates recovered their bearings from a 53-63 deficit and shut down the Knights, notably top gunner Rey Nambatac, in the last two minutes was enough to please Robinson.

“We could have just rolled down and give reasons or find excuses not to compete. But we just focused on making stops,” he said.

The 6-foot Nambatac led all scorers with 24 points but could not flash his usual end-game brilliance, coming up with just two markers—off a pair of charities—that shattered a 63-all count for a two-point Knights cushion with less than four minutes to play.

A leaning bucket off the glass by Lyceum’s Wilson Baltazar tied the game anew before Bong Quinto split his freebies to keep Letran’s head above waters at 66-65, time down to just 2:22 left.

After several missed attempts, the Pirates forced a crucial stop against Knighst big man Jom Sollano, leading to a near transition attack by Edcor Marata, who was pre-emptively fouled by Quinto in the process before splitting his free throws to tie the game for the 12th and final time with less than 30 seconds to go.

Letran had a pair of chances to reclaim the lead but both went for naught, setting up the stage for Ayaay’s heroics that was completed when Knights guard McJour Luib missed a potential game-winning triple at the buzzer.

“I was really surprised with the way we played against Letran. These guys deserve the credit,” noted Robinson. “They really deserve to compete and give ourselves a chance to win because they’ve been committed, engaged and putting in the works. – By Jerome Lagunzad

The scores:

Lyceum (68) – Baltazar 18, Ayaay 16, Alanes 9, Nzeusseu 6, Caduyac 5, Gabayni 4, Marata 4, Alban 2, Serafico 2, Magbuhos 2, Soliman 0.

Letran (66) – Nambatac 24, Sollano 19, Ambohot 8, Quinto 7, Balanza 5, Calvo 3, Apreku 0, Balagasay 0, Dela Peña 0, Luib 0.

Quarterscores: 11-20, 37-41, 51-57, 68-66.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @JLFoxSports