The defending champion takes on a new challenger

Mia Domingo

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The PBA D-League defending champions the NLEX Road Warriors meet the challengers from Freego Jeans in the Aspirants' Cup Finals starting 3 p.m. on February 2 at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City.

It was an old story of experience and nerves when the two teams first met last December 13, 2011 for their elimination round encounter.  Freego Jeans froze in the last 3:50 of the game as they managed only two points down the stretch. The reigning champion North Luzon Expressway Road Warriors pulled the right strings to build their biggest lead of 17 and won 76-59.

At the buzzer, the Road Warriors clearly ruled.  Now, Freego is getting another opportunity to write a different ending to this story after a grueling season – in the Best-of-Three finals showdown for the 2011-2012 PBA D-League Aspirants’ Cup crown.

Repeat

It is no surprise the NLEX Road Warriors are ready for another title quest.

Their powerhouse cast is composed of nearly half of Team Sinag Pilipinas which bagged the gold medal at the South East Asian Games last November.

The Road Warriors count several local college standouts on the squad.  Former UAAP MVP and Far Eastern University’s pride Ryan Roose Garcia is one of them.  Wily guard and former Blue Eagle mainstay Emman Monfort suited up after playing his last UAAP season last year. San Beda College Red Lions’ Garvo Lanete and Dave Marcelo – former captain and co-captain respectively, exhausted their final season in the NCAA last year also. These three leaders steered their teams to the UAAP and NCAA championships.

Filipino-Americans Chris Ellis and Clifford Hodge were also a part of Team Sinag.

The Pinatubo Trio of San Sebastian College-Recoletos Golden Stags’ Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang and Ronald Pascual rounds out the defending champion team.  An unfortunate anterior cruciate ligament tear (ACL) on Pascual’s right knee last December forced him to bid his second conference with the Road Warriors goodbye.  Despite the loss of Pascual, Abueva and Sangalang are more than enough to do the job.

The Road Warriors’ talent and experience clearly show they are ready to defend their title as champions in the amateur ranks.

Critical Points

These are the match-ups to watch out for in the Finals.

Position NLEX Road Warriors Freego Jeans
Point Guard

Emman Monfort

Borgie Hermida

Lester Alvarez
Shooting Guard RR Garcia

Alex Nuyles

Oping Sumalinog

Small Forward

Chris Ellis

Cliff Hodge

Janus Lozada

Bacon Austria

Power Forward Calvin Abueva

Eric Camson

Jeckster Apinan

John Lopez

Center

Ian Sangalang

Rodney Brondial

Austin Manyara

 

Both sides also have quality players coming off the bench. 

Freego has Jose Rizal University’s Jeckster Apinan and John Lopez. They also have Oping Sumalinog – a product of Ateneo de Manila University. These PBA D-League rookies are getting great experience what with their team making it all the way to the Finals.

On the other side, the Road Warriors’ deep bench includes shooters Woody Co and Jaypee Belencion plus a late addition – former Shopinas Clicker Borgie Hermida.

Underdogs

Freego Jeans’ Head Coach Leo Austria never thought they would come this far.  He said, “Lahat naman pala, napapag-aralan. Kahit sabihin nilang matagal na kaming magkakakilala, dahil siguro madaming Adamson players sa lineup ko, iba padin yung three days before the tournament lang kami nakapagbuo ng team while yung ibang teams, matagal ng magkakasama. We are the underdogs here.”

In the inaugural conference dubbed as the Foundation Cup early last year, Freego Jeans only had enough firepower to last until the semi-finals.

An improved Freego Jeans faced the daunting task of proving themselves in this Aspirants’ Cup.  One of their great motivations was earning the respect of the other teams.  They proved they were on the right track when they swept Cebuana Lhuillier Gems in their three-game encounter. The Gems were expected to face NLEX in the Finals. They had the likes of Vic Manuel, Jai Reyes, Terrence Romeo and Kevin Alas in their fold but failed to book their return trip to face the defending champions.

David and Goliath

It’s the ageless story of David taking on Goliath in this Best-of-3 Finals starting Thursday, February 2, 3 p.m. at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City.

Coach Boyet Fernandez is pretty confident with his troops. All the Road Warriors need to do is play at the same level, same intensity and same drive and heart they showed in Games 2 and 3 of the semi-finals.  Consistent performance and undoubtedly, the Aspirants Cup is in the bag.

However, the Jeans Makers will give them a good fight – down to the last second, hoping to pull off what David was able to do with a single shot.

Statistics go out the window from tip-off as these two teams reach for the top. – Rappler.com

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