In a span of 12 years since 2006, the NCAA always saw the San Beda Red Lions figuring in the finals. This Season 93 was no different even if the boys from Mendiola had to hurdle a tough stepladder semis after a new heavyweight – the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) Pirates – swept the elimination phase with a record 18-0 card. It was the first time in 12 years that San Beda found itself behind an opponent in the standings.
In those twelve finals appearances, the Bedans faced six teams – Philippine Christian U (2006), Letran (2007, 2012, 2013, 2015), Jose Rizal U (2008), San Sebastian (2009, 2010, 2011), Arellano U (2014, 2016) and LPU (2017). They lost the title-series twice, in 2009 and 2015. The Red Lions, in all these years, have always been regarded as hands-down the most talented and deepest squad in the league.
LPU’s rise to power in the country’s oldest cage league is a fairytale story. Head coach Topex Robinson took over the Pirates’ ship last year and cast the undesirables into the sea. Now he has the team any coach would want, a hard-fighting and determined crew at Robinson’s beck and call. The desired results came swiftly as LPU made waves in the pre-season tournament Fil-Oil Cup, besting several NCAA and UAAP teams and entering the semis. The Pirates almost pulled one over defending UAAP titlist La Salle, but lost in overtime. It became apparent then that they would to be the biggest threat to the Lions’ throne.
It didn’t take long for the Pirates to announce their arrival and eventual take over of Season 93. They met San Beda early in the first round, and shocked the league with a five-point upset of the heavily favored Red Lions. LPU repeated over the defending champs in double OT to complete the historic sweep.
San Beda’s entry into the finals was highly expected, and it’s clash with the new boss in town – LPU – highly anticipated. Fans from all over eagerly awaited the fierce battle in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals that took place last Friday. And both teams did not disappoint. The Pirates, with their vaunted pressing defense and unwavering attack in blinding speed, took control of the game early. But the fearsome Lions, equipped with valuable championship experience, kept clawing back. LPU controlled the first half, leading by five markers on the strength of 18 turnover points. Returning Lions coach Boyet Fernandez challenged his boys in halftime to show the heart of a champion. But the Pirates continued their assault in the early goings of the third canto to build their biggest lead in the game of 12 points. A few adjustments allowed San Beda to stage a huge rally that tied the count at the end of the quarter.
In the payoff period, the sea of red in the Big Dome (both Bedan and Lycean crowds sported red outfit) was witness to a thrilling see-saw contest. But in endgame, the Lions’ championship experience finally sank in as they wrested the driver’s seat under five minutes of playtime, and slowly built on the lead with the heroics of Robert Bolick, Donald Tankoua, Javee Mocon and graduating guard Davon Potts. Bolick scored nine points in a huge San Beda run for a nine-point lead in the final minute. Newly-named tournament MVP CJ Perez and the bull-strong Mike Nzeusseu tried to make a last ditch stand to cut their deficit to five, but time ran out. SBC won, 94-87.
It was a great championship duel between two elite squads. LPU tasted its first defeat in the season but is not out of the championship picture. First time in the playoffs, the Intramuros-based Lyceans entered unchartered waters and were overwhelmed by a wave of emotions. But Robinson is a master in motivation and is expected to steer the Pirates’ ship back into course. As for the Red Lions, complacency is their biggest foe. Probably used to winning so many titles, the Bedans tend to relax until faced with adversity. They can’t allow LPU to get back its confidence by leveling the series on Thursday.
Whatever happens, it looks like this SBC-LPU rivalry will go on for the seasons to come.