A SQUAD seeking to sustain its supremacy and a team making the most of a rare opportunity square off in the NCAA men’s basketball Finals on Monday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
San Beda and Arellano battle in an expected dogfight in Game One at 4 p.m. for a massive head start in the best-of-three series.
The Red Lions have put up one of the most dominant runs in the Philippine college hoops in history and are in the crucial stretch of their “drive for five”.
A victory against the Chiefs will move them on the verge of capturing a fifth straight title that would match the feat done by San Sebastian in the mid-1990s, and an eighth crown in the last nine years.
“We’re going for the record books,” Lions coach Boyet Fernadez said in a chat with Spin.ph after practice at the MOA Arena. “A five-peat will really put a good mark on the players especially for their future.”
The mighty Lions recently suffered an uncharacteristic dip in performance, losing three straight to end the elimination-round before reclaiming the top seeding with a playoff victory over the Chiefs.
But Fernandez is looking at the bright side of those defeats, including close matches against University of Perpetual Help, 76-75, and against Arellano, 78-76.
“We probably won two of those three games,” he said. It’s only JRU who beat us na medyo malaki ang lamang.”
Fernandez, though, admitted how tough the competition has become.
“Natalo lang kami ng three straight so people probably think na we’re not as strong as before,” he said. “But come to think of it, the team is still composed of the same personnel.”
“It’s the league that has gotten stronger,” added the multi-titled mentor, who is once again counting on a stellar cast led by Baser Amer, Art dela Cruz, and Ola Adeogun. “The league is catching up.”
The Chiefs are a prime example, having risen to the elite of the league after being a middle-of-the-pack team since joining the country’s oldest collegiate league in 2009.
“Wala naman (pressure),” Chiefs coach Jerry Codiñera said. “Laban kami all the way.”
“They just have to do the things they are assigned to for us to be better and be effective,” the soft-spoken mentor added. “Just do the little things that brought us here.”
Arellano has shown it can beat the champions in the regular season, but Codinera knows it is much different in the tiel series.
“It’s a matter of composure,” Codiñera said. “They’re very poised, very disciplined, and very organized. Grabe yung San Beda.”
“But it’s doable (beating them),” he was quick to add. “Kaso lang kailangan above average yung game namin. Hindi pwede good lang.”
“We worked so hard to get to this point so we should be ready for anything,” said Chiefs slotman Dioncee Holts, who will banner the Chiefs along with Jiovani Jalalon and John Pinto. “I’m just ready to get right to it.”
The Lions won two of their three encounters against this season, winning the top-seeding playoff handily, 97-69, after both teams split their elimination-round meetings.
While the Lions are known for their defense, the Chiefs have also made a name on that end, with a suffocating full-court pressure that translates into their high-octane offense.
“We have to take good care of the basketball,” said Fernandez, whose team committed 22 turnovers per game in their last two games against the Chiefs.”
“We just have to match the energy that Arellano will bring,” he added.