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NCAA Season 88 Finals: Throwdown

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While everyone expected to see San Beda-San Sebastian Round 4 in the Season 88 NCAA Finals, quite a few people were also looking at the Letran Knights. San Beda was a given this season, as they have been the last seven editions of this tournament. After all, the Red Lions have won five of the last six titles in the country's oldest and most prestigious varsity basketball tournament. And this is their seventh straight trip to the Finals. San Beda and San Sebastian were running 1-and-2 throughout the season.

San Sebastian was thought to be the sure opponent for the Red Lions yet again. It was after all the Golden Stags who ended what could have been a record-setting dynasty for San Beda by upsetting the Red Lions in the 2009 Finals. This season, the Stags had the Lions' number, beating the reigning champions in both of their elimination round games, the last by a good 14 points that sealed the second straight MVP award for pro-bound Calvin Abueva. "I think they really had a hard time matching San Sebastian's energy more than anything else," said a coach from a different league after that game. That would prove to be the last good thing about San Sebastian's season though.

In the Final 4 the Stags faced off against the Letran Knights. If the Stags owned the Lions this season, so the Knights owned the Stags in turn. Kevin Alas and Company handed Abueva et al sound beatings in both of their elimination round games, the last by 15 points. They just kept on doing the same damn thing in the Final 4. With the Stags enjoying a twice-to-beat advantage, Letran needed to beat them two games in a row. They did just that, walloping San Sebastian in their first game behind the 43-point explosion of Kevin Alas to force a knockout winner-take-all game, then edging the Stags 73-70 in the second game to return to the NCAA Finals. "Masaya ako sa nilaro ng mga bata. Enjoy muna namin ito then we'll work on Game 1 of the Finals," an elated Coach Louie Alas said after that game.

While some observers throught that Abueva didn't play up to his MVP par in this Final 4 series, credit must still be given to the rough and rugged play of the Knights, a Louie Alas staple. Kevin Racal, a 6-foot-1 recruit out of UCLAA's Pamantasan ng Lunsod ng Muntinlupa successfully shadowed Abueva throughout Game 1. Couple that with the sizzling 63 combined points between Kevin Alas and diminutive pointguard Mark Cruz and the Stags seemed to have headlights in their eyes. They never quite got their old swagger back and missed the Finals for the first time in four years.

San Beda for its part had to go through a veritable wringer against the resurgent Perpetual Help Altas in their own Final 4 war of attrition. Ola Adeogun scored the pivotal baskets with some two and a half minutes left in the game to help his Red Lions overcome the stubborn Altas 58-52. "Hindi lang today maganda ang nilaro ng Perpetual; maganda nilaro nila the whole season," exclaimed rookie San Beda Coach Ronnie Magsanoc. Adeogun was the only Lion in double figures in this game with 23 points to go with his 14 rebounds and two blocks.

Both teams are chasing an important part of NCAA history in this championship match. Tied with 16 basketball titles each, it is a veritable race to the top to win a 17th title and the lead in that all-important department for the respective schools. Letran last won a title in 2005 when the elder Alas still had current pro players Aaron Aban and Mark "Pretty Boy" Andaya. They actually made a return trip to the Final in 2007 with Rey Guevarra and RJ Jazul but fell to the powerhouse Red Lions led by the mighty Nigerian giant Sam Ekwe. It has been a Red and White league ever since.

Smart match-ups especially on defense will be critical in this series. The Alases and their Knights do not really have a direct counter for the highly athletic 6-foot-8 Adeogun. On the other hand, the younger Alas will not be an easy defensive assignment for anybody on the San Beda side either. 6-foot-7 Letran center Raymond Almazan might be just enough to distract or limit Adeogun, but the foul-prone cousin of former Knight and pro star Kerby Raymbundo needs to mind his fouls. Rome Dela Rosa, another scion of a former pro star might be the answer to Kevin Alas, although man-coverage has not proven too successful against the hot-shooting off-guard.

Letran's penchant for the down and dirty should also be a cause for concern, not just for San Beda but for the game officials. Jam Cortes, Junjun Alas (Kevin's older brother), Jonathan Belorio, Racal, Carlo Lituania, and even the pint-sized Cruz are known for giving a little extra when setting or coming off screens and picks, in rebound scrums, and generally at any time they think they can get away with it. This might be one reason why San Sebastian couldn't beat the Knights this season. While the Stags are known for their own rugged play, the Knights took all of that to all new heights especially this season. When even the Stags can't take it, you know you're the new king of combat basketball.

San Beda has the advantage up front with 6-foot-5 Jake Pascual and 6-foot-6 Kyle Pascual teaming with Adoegun and the 6-foot-4 Dela Rosa. After Almazan the rest of the Letran frontline may be tough but they are on the small side. Junjun Alas, Cortes and Belorio might be 6-foot-3 in their sneakers. Controlling the boards will be critical, not just to stop plays but to get out in transition where both teams love to get most of their points. Playing a halfcourt game will be to San Beda's advantage as well with all of their big guys who can play the post and the lane and love to crash the offensive boards. Letran will need career games from Kevin Alas and maybe Cruz and Almazan to make this series interesting.

If Kevin Alas gets going though the one guy San Beda might miss is the clutch Garvo Lanete. Lanete would have made this a joke of a Finals for the Red Lions, all but guaranteeing their second Grand Slam in seven years with his long-range game. Without Lanete the onus is now on Baser Amer , long hailed as the future of the San Beda backcourt to become the new Mr Clutch. Amer will also have to fight through the gauntlet known as the high screen-roll of Letran to anchor the perimeter defense of the Red Lions. For the Knights, they'll have to push, shove and bring out everything including the kitchen sink and bathtub to keep the big lions away from the low blocks and the lane.

This goes to San Beda if it ends on Saturday. If it goes to a third game Letran has a better than even chance at bringing the crown back to Intramuros.
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