The defending champion Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights will open their title series against a Mapua University Cardinals team hungry to bring home the crown when the NCAA Season 97 men’s basketball Finals opens on Sunday at the FilOil Flying V Centre.
The best-of-three championship series will begin with Game 1, which kicks off at 3 p.m.
The powerhouse Letran squad remains the favorite after winning all 10 of their games so far in this season, with a sweep of the elimination round and the Final Four. Those wins include an 80-60 blowout win over challenger Mapua early in the season.
The Knights boast of a healthy mix of returning veterans from their 2019 champion team, led by Finals MVP Fran Yu and double-double machine Jeo Ambohot, and talented new faces, including Season 97 MVP candidate Rhenz Abando.
Led by Abando and his 16 points per game average, Letran has the NCAA’s best offense, scoring a league-best 76.4 points per game while also leading the way in several other offensive categories such as field goal percentage, assists, and bench points.
But they also have the league’s most formidable defense, which allowed only 64.5 points per game on the other end and averaged the most blocks per game of any team this season.
Star transferees Abando and Brent Paraiso are also raring for a shot at winning a title after falling short in the finals in their last season outside of Muralla.
“Para sa 'kin, ayoko nang maging bridesmaid ulit, ayoko nang maging runner-up,” Abando said after their last game. “Ito na 'yung chance. Kahit sino na makalaban namin, may tiwala ako sa mga teammates ko.”
Mapua, though, has proven itself worthy of a place opposite Letran in this championship clash.
The Cardinals, led by a core of former Red Robins from their high school program, including Paolo Hernandez, Warren Bonifacio, and Brian Lacap, made their presence known in the elimination round when they scored an upset over an undefeated San Beda Red Lions squad, 68-54.
That game proved pivotal as it allowed them to clinch the #2 seed over San Beda after both teams ended the eliminations with identical 7-2 records.
In the Final Four against the same San Beda team, Mapua bounced back from a slight hiccup in the form of a 73-67 overtime loss to prove their earlier win was no fluke as they eliminated the Red Lions with a 70-67 triumph that snapped the San Beda dynasty’s string of 14 consecutive finals appearances.
Mapua is a dangerous team with their three-point shooting (#1 in three-point field goals made and #1 in three-point field goal percentage after the elimination round) as its main weapon. They also have plenty of scoring depth, with four Cardinals averaging double-digits in scoring and another not far behind with over nine points per game.
They will also undoubtedly be inspired to make the most of this rare opportunity after they made it into the finals for the first time in 27 long years - and will shoot for the school's first title since 1991.
"Talagang hindi biro pumasok sa finals kaya siguro mas titriplehin namin ‘yung trabaho namin," Mapua head coach Randy Alcantara said.
In the first ‘Battle of Intramuros’ matchup between these two teams, Letran leaned on its size advantage, taking a massive advantage in the rebounding battle, 56-35, while also outscoring Mapua in points in the paint, 35-26.
That game also saw an off-nights from some of the Cardinals top gunners like Lacap and Rence Nocum, who are both Top 10 in the league in three-point percentage but combined to shoot 0-for-8, something Mapua should hope is not so likely to happen again.
Game 2 is scheduled for May 22, Sunday, while a rubber match, if necessary, will also be held on a Sunday, the week after.
—JMB, GMA News