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Lion’s Hunger Leads Them to NCAA Finals After Four Years

Jacob Cortez celebrated early, hoisting the ball like a trophy in one hand while punching the air in the other.

The whippet-quick guard’s jubilation was justified with still 26 seconds left on the clock, as the San Beda Red Lions—after a four-year absence that is considered too long for such a formidable program—clawed their way back to the NCAA men’s basketball finals.

But Cortez wasn’t the lone hero in the Lions dismantling Lyceum, as a plethora of weapons helped in jettisoning the Pirates for good, 82-72, Friday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.

San Beda also got boosts from unheralded James Payosing and the sweet-shooting Nygel Gonzales to forge a best-of-three title showdown with the Mapua Cardinals whom the Lions have had no success against this season.

And that celebration will be cut short, with what the Lions have ahead of them.

“We really have to prepare. We weren’t able to beat them in the first and second rounds,’’ said San Beda coach Yuri Escueta. “They (Cardinals) are a very talented team, their shot-making ability is different. We almost had them (in the second round), but it’s not going to be easy.”

Escueta would need something like James Payosing’s team-high 18 points and the outside sniping of Gonzales and bigmen Yukien Andrada and Damie Cuntapay if they are to end Mapua’s mastery of them in Game 1 of their series-opener on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.

First finalist

The No. 1 seed Cardinals booked the first finals spot by eliminating the College of St. Benilde Blazers in just one game, while the Lions needed to hurdle second-ranked Lyceum’s twice-to-beat edge to seal the title clash with Mapua.

Both teams aren’t new to the anxiety of the championship series, with the Cardinals getting close to winning it two seasons ago versus the Letran Knights with practically the same core they have now.

Three seasons removed from a championship victory, the Red Lions still possess the same grit and spunk in their previous Final Four runs.

Efficient shooting

“Since the start of the season, our goal has been to win the championship, so we’re one step closer,’’ said Escueta.

Also helping the Lions achieve that was Filipino-Canadian Jomel Puno, who scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter that staved off the Pirates’ last-ditch effort.

The Lions drilled nine threes in the second half. They made 13 triples overall with Cuntapay going perfect in three attempts and Andrada going two-for-six.

Cortez, the hero of their previous make-or-break faceoff with the Pirates, finished with only seven points. But the first of his two threes from the corner with still three minutes left in the third quarter had a domino effect that allowed the Lions to build a double-digit cushion and pull away.

“If I’m not mistaken, this was our sixth do-or-die game this season. Every time you wear that San Beda jersey, you want to represent and win that championship,’’ said Escueta.

“We will study our games against Mapua. But just like any other game, we want to focus more on ourselves,’’ he added.

After the final buzzer sounded, Lyceum’s Enoch Valdez got a big hug from Cortez, who acknowledged the graduating Pirate’s heroics that circled the drain.

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Valdez scored 22 of his 28 points in the first half, but the Lions relied on a smothering defense around the rim and accurate threes to pull out the win.