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San Beda avenges Mapua, sets up title showdown in NCAA Finals

MANILA, Philippines–San Beda came roaring back with a vengeance, stamping on stubborn Mapua to force a winner-take-all with a 71-65 win on Sunday in the NCAA Season 99 men’s basketball Finals.

Jacob Cortez generated the offense that the Red Lions needed in a whirlwind comeback, sending off the red-and-yellow Mapua faithful at Mall of Asia Arena in frustration, all of them expecting a coronation.

Cortez got away with a game-high 21 points, eight of them coming in a pivotal turnaround in the fourth, including swishing a couple of three, that wiped out the Cardinals’ advantage for good.

“We expect the same intensity in Game 3. If there’s one thing we learned, we know we can beat them,’’ said San Beda coach Yuri Escueta, whose Lions lost the series opener following Mapua’s two-game sweep in the eliminations.

But what proved to be an important piece of the San Beda puzzle was Clifford Jopia, the 6-foot-8 rim protector who towered over the entire Mapua frontline and plucked several crucial boards near the end.

After Cortez and Yukien Andrada buried back-to-back threes, bumping them up ahead by seven, the Red Lions gave the Cardinals several opportunities to reverse the outcome only to see their free throws desert them when it mattered most.

Cortez missed a pair and fellow playmaker Aaron Royo flubbed four before Peter Alfaro split his freebies as the Lions went 1 of eight from the line in the final minute.

Luckily for them, the Cardinals were a whole lot worse with Paolo Hernandez misfiring three from the trifecta territory while Clint Escamis just couldn’t find the target with the clock winding down, bungling 17 of his 21 shots overall.

Peter Alfaro.–MARLO CUETO/INQUIRER.net

Escamis, who was awarded the rookie-MVP plum earlier in the day, still led the Cardinals with 15 points.

“We really wanted to win this badly. We just stuck together as a team,” said Cortez after a miserable trip to the free throw area, missing nine of his 18 attempts from that spot.

The Cardinals, looking to end a 32-year title drought, seemed headed toward that direction at the onset of the fourth with JC Recto playing the game of his life before 22,465 screaming souls after scoring six straight points that put them on a six-point lead.

Then suddenly, the hot-shooting Cortez came to life. After a slithering move to the paint, Cortez drained back-to-back three that erased doubts of another defeat.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, we now know we can beat them. But knowing (Mapua) coach Randy (Alcantara), they will certainly adjust and it won’t be easy,” said Escueta.

The Lions wielded their most effective weapon in their arsenal, opening the match with a near double-digit advantage riding on the threes of Peter Alfaro, Yukien Andrada and Damie Cuntapay.

Hernandez buried a buzzer-beating three of his own that cut the San Beda advantage down to a point at the end of the opening quarter before Escamis’ looper from afar gave Mapua its first taste of the lead right after the break.

But the Lions, maximizing their height advantage through Jopia, again took control with Cortez and Jomel Puno pushing them comfortably back on top together with peppery guard Aaron Royo.

Jopia provided a different facet in the San Beda defense, changing everybody’s shot on the Mapua end while swatting away a few potential baskets around the rim.