TWO rivals who have crossed paths in the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for two straight years face off in the same knockout stage anew on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
San Beda and University of Perpetual Help rekindle their postseason rivalry as they square off at 4 p.m. after twice-to-beat Arellano and Jose Rizal University tangle in the other semifinal pairing two hours earlier.
The Red Lions look to assert their mastery of the Altas after beating them handily in the last two seasons. And like those two editions, the defending champions only need to win once to advance to an impressive ninth straight Finals appearance.
“We are facing the same team for the third year in a row,” Lions coach Boyet Fernandez said. “Hopefully, it will also be the same result.”
But the top-seeded Lions are definitely expecting to have their hands full against the Altas, who are hoping that third time’s the charm.
“Yung last two seasons kasi yung mga player ko hindi pa handa sa mga ganitong klaseng labanan,” Altas coach Aric del Rosario said. “Pero siguro ngayon, dahil sa marami silang dinaanan na game na very close, mas marami na silang experience.”
Two of those down-the-wire games in the elimination round were against the defending champions. The Altas took the Lions to the limit before suffering a 77-75 loss in the first round, before exacting revenge in their second encounter with a heart-stopping 76-75 win for a split of their head-to-head matchups.
“I really hate facing Perpetual and coach Aric,” Fernandez admitted. “They have the three best individual players in the league.”
He is referring to shoo-in MVP winner Earl Thompson, do-it-all forward Harold Arboleda, and scoring machine Juneric Baloria, who have been teaming up with fellow veteran Justine Alano in carrying the Altas on their backs all-season long.
But the Lions boast their own stellar cast bannered by playmaking wizard Baser Amer, versatile forward Art dela Cruz, and dominant slotman Ola Adeogun.
“Kailangan ma-control namin scorers nila kagaya si Baser tsaka si Dela Cruz tsaka dapat kailangan si Ola hindi makakuha ng offensive rebounds,” Del Rosario said. “Buong-buo na sila. Pag buo ang team, mahirap mong buwagin.”
Unlike the past years, though, the Lions have bared cracks in their cloak of invincibility as they ended the regular season with an uncharacteristic three-game skid, before putting a halt to it with a statement 97-69 rout of Arellano in their playoff to clinch the top seed.
“We focused on the positives of our losing streak,” Fernandez said.