For the first time in ten years, a team has forced the San Beda College (SBC) Red Lions to a sudden death match for the NCAA finals. Last Friday, the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta (UPHSD) Altas shocked the twice-to-beat Red Lions, 87-83, in their semis bout of the 92nd National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Season. The Lions’ six-peat hopes were crashed by Letran last year and are looking to take back the crown this season after ending the elimination rounds at No. 1. But the No. 4 Altas, who fell to San Beda twice this season, did the improbable by scoring the more important victory in the semis, and setting up the knockout game scheduled tomorrow at 3:45 pm at the Mall of Asia Arena. In the other semis duel, No. 2 Arellano University (AU) took the first finals berth by subduing No. 3 Mapua, 92-80.
Since 2006, San Beda has topped the NCAA’s elims and barged into the finals, winning eight titles in ten seasons. But now, the 19-time NCAA king is in danger of missing the finals boat if the Altas make it two in a row tomorrow.
UPHSD’s gigantic win last Friday surely boosted the Altas’ confidence by leaps and bounds, especially when prior to the game, they have not defeated the Lions this year. Moreover, reported rifts between certain team members have cast doubts on the Altas’ chances against the NCAA’s Big Red Machine. Nigerian sensation Bright Akhuetie was reported to have been suspended by the school last week for insubordination. He wasn’t around when the Altas lost to Mapua in their second round meeting last week. But the 6’5” sophomore forward towed his team to victory over SBC last Friday with his 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Called “Mr. Brightside,” Akhuetie also scored the breakaway basket in endgame that propelled his team to the important win.
The heavy underdog Perpetual Help U did everything right versus SBC last Friday. Before the game, the Altas were just ninth in the league in offense, with 69.3 points per game (PPG) on 40.2% shooting. But they sizzled with 87 markers on Friday, with an eye-popping 60.34% shooting clip. They actually started the game trailing San Beda 0-5. But the league-leading defensive team applied an unforgiving pressure defense on all SBC ball-handlers that forced their opponents into a maze of errors to post a commanding 21-9 lead by the end of the opening period. San Beda rookie Robert Bolick got the Lions back in the game with 21 points in the first half. But the Altas held the former La Salle ace guard scoreless in the second half.
But even more amazing was the way UPHSD handled the Lions’ patented trapping defense. Tons of credit must go to the Altas’ coaching brain trust that prepared the team against San Beda’s changing trapping defenses. Several times, they succeeded in passing out of the traps, swinging the ball quickly until it finds the open man. They also had a number of open looks from the outside that produced seven treys out of fifteen tries for a remarkable 46.67% three-point field goal grade. Perpetual likewise had 22 fast break points, mostly from its effective press break scheme, and 20 turnover points. The red mark in their game was their horrendous 30 turnovers. But the Lions also committed 24 errors.
Several Altas stood tall on Friday, with veteran forward Gab Danganon exploding for 27 points. Daryl Singontiko, Jack Hao and Genmar Ilagan added a combined 31 markers.
Can the Altas pull off another king-size upset tomorrow and end San Beda’s ten-year finals appearance?
It’s certainly doable but undoubtedly easier said than done. The Lions are a proud band with a winning tradition. Even without the injured Donald Tankoua, SBC has enough firepower to pound on the Altas’ defensive walls. San Beda remains the best offensive squad with over 86 PPG, even when it’s the worst in defense, allowing 78.4 PPG. SBC also has the deepest bench in the league.
Expect a thrilling fight for the last ticket to the NCAA finals. The Altas have the momentum. But never count out the heart of a champion.