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Cardinals Racing Against Time to Finally Win NCAA Crown After Three Decades

It’s Mapua vs San Beda. It’s for all the marbles. And it boils down to this one game.

The Cardinals know exactly what to expect.

“This will be another fierce battle,’’ said Mapua captain Warren Bonifacio.

But the Lions, too, aren’t ignorant of the challenge they are headed into.

“We expect the same intensity in Game 3. We’ve been in this (do-or-die) situation before. Again, we just have to stick together and fight it out to the end,’’ said San Beda coach Yuri Escueta.

Almost given up for lost, San Beda found a savior in Jacob Cortez, who led a comeback assault by the Red Lions that foiled a Mapua’s sweep attempt and stretched their best-of-three showdown to the limit.

The Cardinals might have more desperation in them when the two teams battle Sunday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.

When the ball tips off at 2 p.m., Mapua will be looking to end a 32-year wait for the NCAA men’s basketball crown and in doing so, will look to avert another catastrophic meltdown similar to Game 2 when they were in command nearly the entire second half.

“We’ll definitely go all out. We have to motivate ourselves after that loss,” Bonifacio said.

“There should be no room for mistakes. We have to show everybody that we need this win badly by defending well and executing our plays to perfection,’’ said Mapua coach Randy Alcantara, a bruising forward for Mapua in 1991, the year the Cardinals last won the NCAA crown.

Much of Mapua’s momentum lies in rookie-most valuable player Clint Escamis and Paolo Hernandez, who missed five threes between them in the final minute of the Game 2 defeat. And as the Cardinals’ ship was sinking, Cortez and Yukien Andrada made sure there would be no rescue job and hit their shots to close out the game.

Another big difference that helped hasten their downfall was Clifford Jopia, the 6-foot-8 San Beda rim protector who managed to control the boards in a wild and woolly exchange down the stretch.

“If there’s one thing we learned, we know we can beat them. But knowing coach Randy, it won’t be easy. They will adjust,’’ said Escueta.

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Seeking his first collegiate crown as a coach, Escueta is on the verge of piloting the Lions to their 23rd title overall and first since the 2018-2019 season.