2017 Year in Review: First time as underdogs, the San Beda Red Lions lean on championship experience

December 24, 2017

by: Jude Roque

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(Editor’s note: the Sports5.ph crew looks back at the top sports stories of the past 12 months in our 2017 Year in review series.)

They started the season as heavy favorites to win back-to-back NCAA titles. And for good reason. The San Beda Red Lions, the winningest collegiate basketball program in recent years, were having a spotless first semester after capturing the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and Fil-Oil Flying V pre-season tournament championships. In fact, the Mendiola-based squad swept all opponents in the Fil-Oil, 11-0 to be exact, which included UAAP finalists Ateneo Blue Eagles and De La Salle Green Archers.

But the proud Red Lions were dragged back down to earth in only their second match in the NCAA’s Season 93, after bowing to a new powerhouse in town – the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) Pirates – 91-96. Third-year chief bench tactician Topex Robinson applied a relentless full-court pressure defense and non-stop running game to stymie the bigger, more talented defending champions. Of course, Lyceum also had eventual season MVP CJ Perez, bullstrong Cameroonian center Mike Harry Nzeusseu, and sensational twins Jaycee and Jayvee Marcelino. The shocking loss was a humbling experience for the Bedans. But it also served as a huge wake-up call to the team that won nine of the last eleven NCAA diadems.

Returning head coach Boyet Fernandez, architect of the Lions’ conquest of the NCAA crowns in 2013 and 2014, whipped the boys into championship-caliber shape again, and led the Red and White troop to a 15-game winning streak. But as they got back their groove, a second date with the league-leading and unbeaten Pirates was inevitable.  And on October 18, 2017, the much-awaited rematch happened. After a nip-and-tuck contest however, LPU still emerged victorious in double overtime, 107-105, to complete a historic 18-0 sweep of the elimination rounds.

For the first time since 2006, the Red Lions finished the elimination phase not on top of the standings. For the first time also, San Beda entered the semis without a twice-to-beat edge by virtue of LPU’s sweep. The Pirates gained an outright Finals entry, while the three other semi-finalists must go through the stepladder semis.  No. 4 San Sebastian College upended No. 3 Jose Rizal University to earn the right to face No. 2 San Beda in another knockout encounter. Determined to return to the finals for a twelfth consecutive year, and get another crack at the Pirates, the defending champions took care of business and withstood a tough and physical Golden Stags side for a 76-71 triumph.

And so the stage was set for the LPU-San Beda best-of-three championship series at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum. With an unscathed record, the Pirates were the slight favorites against the perennial NCAA titlists. The mighty Lions were never considered underdogs in eleven straight NCAA seasons, until Season 93. It should also be noted that in both the first and second round meetings, the Pirates were in control most of the time, and erected 14-point leads.  San Beda never had the upper hand in double digits.

Just like in their previous battles, Game 1 was also skintight with SBC taking a one-point lead after the opening period. But the Pirates’ unforgiving and suffocating trapping defense forced the Lions to three turnovers in a row to wrest control of the duel and finish the first half ahead. LPU even started the second half on a rampage to establish its largest lead of 12 markers. But as soon as the Red Lions realized the deep hole that they were in, the championship experience and winning tradition kicked in. Starring 2017 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup MVP Robert Bolick, pro-bound Davon Potts, 2017 NCAA Mythical Five member Javee Mocon and eventual Finals MVP Donald Tankoua, San Beda staged a gargantuan comeback to tie the count by the end of the third canto. The payoff period was neck-and-neck as expected as both teams traded baskets until the final two minutes. With a one-point edge however from a Tankoua basket, the Bedans did what they did best the entire tournament, which is to make defensive stops. At that crucial moment, the league’s No. 1 defensive team forced the pivotal stop against the league’s best scoring squad. And in the next possession, the Pirates switched on SBC’s pick and roll, leaving Bolick with the leather against Nzeusseu at the top of the key.

But instead of penetrating, the former La Salle bench player opted to take a looping trey over the outstretched arm of the 6’6” sophomore center and Mythical Team member. The shot bounced off the glass board and the rim, and into the hoop for a four-point San Beda lead. Perez tried to make one of his signature big shots but missed the target. Then, Bolick made one of his own, a steamroller drive to the basket that put the game out of the Pirates’ reach. San Beda took Game 1, 94-87, for a 1-0 advantage in the Finals.  It was also the first time in the season that LPU tasted defeat.

The momentum now shifted to the Lions’ side. It was also the worst time for the Pirates to take a loss for the first time. They were 18-0, but 0-1 in the finals going into Game 2.

In Game 2, the Pirates opened the match with urgency, racing to an early five-point lead, this time with more Pirates sharing the scoring pie, like skipper Jesper Ayaay, Jeffrey Santos, Ralph Tansingco and Reymar Caduyac. But this time also, the Red Lions were more composed, having very little trouble breaking the dreaded Lyceum press.

Fast forward to the third period when another close battle ensued. Bolick got the lead back to San Beda after a long while with a corner triple. But Ayaay beat the buzzer with his own corner three-ball to finish the quarter with his team still ahead by two.

In the final five minutes of the game, Bolick took charge once again, scoring seven markers, including another booming trey that broke the camel’s back. The Pirates never recovered and finally dropped down their swords with less than 20 ticks left in playtime.  The Red Lions completed the sweep of the Finals with a convincing 92-82 victory to grab their tenth NCAA plum in twelve years, and 21st overall, the most in the 93-year old league.

Bolick finished with 18 markers while Tankoua had another stellar performance with 17 points and 17 boards, good enough to get the nod as Finals MVP. Potts and Mocon added 15 and 14 points, respectively. Sweet-shooting guard AC Soberano also contributed 11 markers, including a climactic triple that started the Pirates’ dive in endgame.

Fernandez, who is 7-1 in the NCAA Finals in three seasons, also got his third Coach of the Year award.

The Red Lions had some bumps in their journey this year but still ended up with the prestigious crown in their hands.  Having weathered the storm that is LPU, San Beda is now more ready than ever to take on the next challenge.

OTHER YEAREND CONTENT

San Miguel’s near-Grand Slam season

A short wishlist for sports in 2018

The long and arduous journey of the Ateneo Blue Eagles

Our favorite sports moments

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