Mapua starts title hunt

This is a new San Beda team that we are facing.

Toby Agustin and the Mapua Cardinals start their hunt for their first NCAA men’s basketball title since 1991. | Photograph courtesy of NCAA

September 10, 2022

Mapua University kicks off its redemption tour when it battles new-look San Beda University in the opening salvo of Season 98 National Collegiate Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament today at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Game time is at 6 p.m. with the Cardinals looking for a win that will boost their morale in the early stretch of the country’s oldest collegiate basketball tournament.

A simple opening ceremony under the theme “Achieve Greatness Every Day” will usher in the new season at 12 p.m. followed by the 3:30 p.m. collision between host Emilio Aguinaldo College and Arellano University.

Traditionally, the host school battles the reigning champion in the first game of opening day.

But with Letran College being placed under health protocols, the league decided to break the tradition and pit host school — the Generals — against the Chiefs.

Still, all eyes will be on Mapua.

The Cardinals were flying under the radar at the start of the season. They made noise when they won seven of their nine games in the elimination round to finish second behind unbeaten Letran heading into the play-in tournament.

In the Final Four, the Cardinals shocked the Red Lions, 70-67, to formally enter the best-of-three finals for the first time since 1995.

Aside from that, the Cardinals also denied the Red Lions their 15th straight finals appearance that dates back in 2006 when they still had Sam Ekwe, Pong Escobal and Ogie Menor and sent the entire program into a complete overhaul with head coach Boyet Fernandez walking away in favor of 37-year-old Yuri Escueta.

The Cardinals bowed to the Knights in the finals, but sideliners believe that Season 97 Most Improved Player Paolo Hernandez, Warren Bonifacio and Brian Lacap will be back the following season to finally clinch the school’s first NCAA crown after a 31-year drought.

After all, the Red Lions are rebuilding and trying to find their identities under a young and untested mentor while the Knights lost reigning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Rhenz Abando to the Korean Basketball League and Finals MVP Jeo Ambohot to the Philippine Basketball Association.

It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to fire the warning shots.

Playing under the banner of Marinerong Pilipino, the Mapua boys made a deep run into the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and pushed EcoOil-La Salle to the limit before surrendering in a best-of-three finals duel, sparking speculations that they are truly ready to take on the massive challenges in the NCAA.

But Mapua coach Randy Alcantara vowed to be cautious heading into their opening encounter.

“This is a new San Beda team that we are facing,” said Alcantara, who was part of the last Mapua squad that won a title in 1991.

“Coach Yuri may be a rookie coach in the NCAA, but he is certainly no stranger to coaching. We have to assess our conditioning and scouting reports.”

“Everybody’s excited and we’re ready to take on a different San Beda team this season.”

True enough, San Beda should not be taken lightly.

Escueta, for one, is a known student of the game who learned at the feet of elite mentors like Ato Badolato, Norman Black, Tab Baldwin, and Chot Reyes after playing for the great San Beda team in high school and the multi-titled Ateneo de Manila University squad in college.

“We’d like to make stops. We’d like to run. We don’t want them to execute their plays and, at the same time, we have to have fast pace while reading and reacting to the situation,” Escueta, who will bring back the core of Season 95 Mythical Team member James Kwekuteye, JB Bahio, Jacob Cortez, Yukien Andrada and Damie Cuntapay.

“Aside from Mapua, we want to focus on ourselves. It’s going to be an exciting game on Saturday.”

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