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Cards finish as top seed in NCAA 99 Round 2

Article by: Alexandra Isabelle G. Delavin and Alyanna Ysabelle A. Faustino
Graphics by: Ma. Alyssa Therese S. Manalang
Photo by: Chloie Ysabelle T. Magno

Fueled by their hunt for redemption, the Mapúa University (MU) Cardinals made school history after ending the elimination round as the top ranked team, stamping their class with a 15-3 standing at the conclusion of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Season 99 elimination round and booking their return to the Final Four with a twice-to-beat advantage. The matches were held from October 25 to November 22, at the Filoil EcoOil Centre.

To kick-off their second round, the Cardinals took on a tough challenge in the form of last season’s runners-up De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde Blazers, last October 25. Playing catchup for most of the match, the Intramuros-based squad was able to mount a stunning comeback, cutting an 11-point deficit to a solitary point. However, the Cards ultimately fell short, abruptly snapping their six-game winning streak, 61-65.

On October 28, in another close encounter, the red and gold squad sought to regain its winning ways against defending champions Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights. Finding themselves trailing in the deep waters of the fourth frame, the Big 3—Paolo Hernandez, Clint Escamis, and Warren Bonifacio—all showcased hints of greatness. Pao “Mr. Clutch”  Hernandez drilled in a crucial three-pointer to cut the deficit to one with 1:23 left in the game. Capitalizing on this momentum, Escamis gave the Cards the lead for the first time in the match with a fadeaway mid-range jumper. Finally, in another crucial stop, Team Captain  Bonifacio selflessly passed the ball to an open Jopet Soriano, before Escamis iced the victory with free throws, 69-66.

In a crucial Battle of Intramuros, the Mapúa ballers were eager to tighten their hold on the top spot against the second-seed Lyceum of the Philippines University Pirates, last November 3. When the once nip and tuck battle transitioned into a lopsided affair, with a 19-point deficit in the second half, the Cards refused to back down. A superhuman effort from Escamis breathed some life into the red and gold squad, with the massive lead trimmed down to three.However, the Pirates’ lead proved to be a bigger hole to dig themselves out of, failing to sink their Intramuros neighbors, 82-86.

Unfazed by this setback, the Cards were determined to reignite their winning character against the gritty San Sebastian College-Recoletos Stags last November 5. After a lackluster first half, the Intramuros-based squad sparked a stunning offensive explosion. Thanks to the hot shooting of Bonifacio, who scored nine of 15 points in the final frame, the Mapúa ballers made their return to the win column with authority, 70-63.

With the race to the Final Four tight and unpredictable, the Intramuros-based squad needed to secure an advantage with a victory against the dark horse Emilio Aguinaldo College Generals last November 8. Despite a commanding 19-point lead by the fourth frame, the Cards’  lead soon dwindled to two, with Bonifacio sidelined late in the match due to an injury. Nonetheless, the league-leading ballers regained their composure in time, with Escamis sinking a crucial three-pointer down the stretch to completely avert disaster, 83-77.

Bent on climbing up the pinnacle, the Cardinals fueled a furious rally to secure the solo top spot and escape the San Beda University Red Lions in a tight match last November 12. Backed into a corner with a 10-point disadvantage entering the fourth period, Rookie Peter Rosillo took a trip at the charity lane and converted his throws to heighten the Cards’ sense of urgency and start the 14-0 run built on fast breaks and shots inside and outside the paint. Despite the Lions’ attempt to regain their momentum, Clutch King Hernandez found his spot beyond the arc, draining in a much-needed three pointer to end the period with a 71-69 score.

Following this, the red and gold squad had no plans of letting the top spot slip away as they took command over the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA Altas, who were seen as another wild card in the tournament, last November 15. Fueled by a six-to-nothing start, the Intramuros-based squad remained composed all throughout to sit comfortably in the saddle after building up a 56-36 lead to close the third frame. The same rhythm went on as the Cardinals dictated the tempo during the payoff period, shattering the four-game winning streak of the Las Piñas-based team with a 69-53 victory and booking the first ticket to the Final Four.

On November 17, the Mapúa ballers officially laid hands on the first of two twice-to-beat advantage in the contest after seizing their fourteenth win following their clash against the Arellano University Chiefs. Returning to the court, the league-leading squad remained composed right from the start, even performing a buzzer-beater layup to widen the gap by the end of the opening quarter. While the Chiefs strived to trim the lead down, the Cards kept their opponents at bay, handing them another devastating loss with a 84-75 score.

Down to their Round 2 match held last November 22, the Mapúa Cardinals had to face their tormentors, the tenacious Jose Rizal University Heavy Bombers. Known as a force to be reckoned with in the current season, the Intramuros-based squad led by as much as 10 points in hopes to avenge its first round loss. While Heavy Bombers Team Captain Ry Dela Rosa fired in a clutch three to tie the match to 72-all, the red and gold squad refused to back down, slamming the doors shut to end the Bombers’ hopes of entering the playoffs, 77-74.

Throughout the elims tournament, Floor General Escamis bagged eight Player of the Game (PoG) honors– holding the most number of the said title in the current season. Proving to be an all-rounder, Escamis ended the elims round with an average of 16.28 points and 3.78 steals per game to lead in the two departments, marking him as a clear frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Most Valuable Player season awards. Team Captain Bonifacio also bagged the PoG title thrice, while Clutch Hernandez followed suit with two. Guard Cyrus Cuenco and Rookie JC Recto also showed up for their team after clinching one PoG title apiece.

Armed with a twice-to-beat advantage, the Mapúa Cardinals will take flight in their first semis match against the CSB Blazers on November 28, at 1:30 PM, at the Mall of Asia Arena. If needed, the squad will head on to a second semis match on December 1, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. Meanwhile, the time will depend on the number of matches to be played on the second day. If two games will occur, the Cardinals’ game will start at 3:30 PM.

Games will still be aired on GTV, along with livestreaming on the social media platforms of GMA Sports PH and NCAA Philippines.

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