Five things you need to know about the NCAA Finals

Natashya Gutierrez

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MANILA, Philippines — As the NCAA Basketball season comes to a close, two teams – the San Sebastian Stags and the San Beda Red Lions – are left standing. The two titans will face each other starting Monday, October 24, in a best-of-three series that will certainly be packed with action.

Whether you have been following the season faithfully or simply want to watch this year’s championships, here are five things you need to know about the 87th Finals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

1. Who will rule in the 3rd meet?

Neither San Beda nor San Sebastian are strangers to the Finals, or, should I say, to each other. 

Both teams are coming into the championships for the third time in a row since 2009. The top-seeded Lions clinched a finals spot after devouring fourth-seeded Jose Rizal University in the semi-finals. It wasn’t as easy for the Stags.

The San Sebastian Stags secured the second finals berth but only after a tough challenge from the Letran Knights. The No.3 Knights convincingly defeated No. 2 Stags in the first game of the Final Four, forcing a do-or-die game.

But Letran could not pull off another win. San Sebastian fought ferociously for another shot of the championships and succeeded – beating Letran 63-56 and setting up their third meeting with the Lions.

What makes this year’s Finals and the trilogy exciting is this: Once and for all, it will settle the score between the two teams.

In 2009, the Stags stole the crown from 2008 titleholder San Beda, but the Lions are the reigning champions after they took it back from San Sebastian last year. Who will rule this time around?

2. One for the books

The two teams have met three times this season, and their games have been indications that the Finals will be one for the books.

In the first round, the Stags and the Lions clashed for the first time since the 2010 finals. And in fierce fashion, San Sebastian snapped San Beda’s 26-game winning streak with a close 70-68 victory.

The Stags handed the defending champions their first loss of the season and swept the first round. The rivals met again in the second round of the eliminations but this time, the end was different.

San Beda demolished San Sebastian with a 91-70 beating, not only exacting revenge on the Stags but also boosting their team’s morale. “I told my boys before the game we have to beat San Sebastian in order for us to believe in ourselves, that we can beat them,” Coach Frankie Lim said after that game.

Sure enough, Coach Lim’s men remained confident. Their win forced another game between the Stags and the Lions to battle for the No.1 spot, after both held identical 16-2 records. San Beda triumphed yet again during that meet-up to clinch the top NCAA ranking going into the Final Four, but this time, by a much smaller margin, 88-85.

With both teams clearly beatable, fans eagerly await the surely exciting battle between the two.

3. Players to watch

For San Sebastian, the “Big 3” leads the pack in the form of power forward Calvin Abueva, small forward Ronald Pascual, and center Ian Sangalang.

In the team’s last game against Letran that won them a spot in the Finals, Abueva had his 18th double-double of the season, finishing with 20 points and 18 rebounds. Sangalang added another 15 points and 12 boards, while Pascual scored 11 markers and 7 rebounds.

Michael Angelo Miranda was also a crucial player in the Stags’ win against the Lions during the first round from the bench because of the way he crashed the boards in the game’s final seconds. He contributed 10 points during the team’s last meet-up with San Beda, proving he too is a star in his own right.

The Lions, meanwhile, have their three big guys in Dave Marcelo, Kyle Pascual, and Jake Pascual – all of whom finished with double-doubles during their playoff for the number one spot against the Stags.

And don’t count on stopping top gunner Garvo Lanete, who excelled in the team’s last game versus San Sebastian scoring a whopping 21 points and 11 rebounds. Small forward Rome de la Rosa, son of PBA cager Romy de la Rosa, and returning player Anthony Semerad are also forces to be reckoned with.

4. Stags can rally a comeback

Stags started the season with an impressive 15 wins and zero losses. But they lost three games in a row. Letran handed the Stags their first loss in the second round, San Beda handed them their second, and they lost again to the Lions in the playoffs for the top spot.

When the Stags met the Lions for the second time last week to battle for No.1, San Sebastian renewed their fans’ faith. Unlike in their first loss to San Beda, where the Stags looked to have given up in by the third period, their playoffs game was different. The Stags cut a 14-point lead and turned it into an 8-point lead for themselves in the second period. While they ended up losing by 3 points eventually, it showed that San Sebastian can rally a comeback. This is not to say they should rely on it.

The Stags need to start strong in the Finals to gain confidence, especially given that they were defeated twice by the Lions in their last two games. In their first loss to San Beda, San Sebastian was actually leading 45-35 in the first half until the Lions caught up and demolished them in the second period.

Even in their win against the Lions in the first round, the match was tight all the way until the Stags clamped down on defense in the last couple of minutes. To win, San Sebastian’s men need to maintain their momentum until the very end. In the past, the Stags have been held to extremely limited field goals in the final canto, something they cannot manage in the Finals. They cannot rely on points from the line and take sloppy jumpshots as they did against Letran in their first final four game or they can kiss their title dream goodbye.

Coach Topex Robinson also knows that his bench must perform in order for his team to snatch the crown from the defending champions. “It wasn’t about the big three, it’s about everyone. I just told them defense is 10 percent technique and 90% effort,” said Robinson after the team’s win against the Lions in the first round. Their defense in that game was exceptional, outperforming San Beda on turnover points, 18-8.

5. Fifth championship for San Beda?

This is not just San Beda’s third showing in the Finals – it is their sixth. And they are going for their fifth championship.

Only in 2009 did they fail to capture the title after being routed by the Stags. This is their fifth appearance under coach Frankie Lim, and in last year’s championships, swept the Stags with considerable ease. They started strong this season but have continued to improve along the way.

If the Lions continue to defend the way they have – by using their significant size advantage over the Stags – they have a chance at keeping their crown. When they dominated San Sebastian in the second round, the Stags were unable to make any field goals in the fourth quarter because of stellar defense from San Beda.

Aside from size, the Lions also have something San Sebastian doesn’t: bench depth. With more players to put on the court, San Beda has an edge over San Sebastian, as evident in the Stags’ breakdown in their first loss to the Lions when Pascual and Abueva were benched in the final period. Lastly, expect Coach Lim to take advantage of the Lions’ running game, the same way they did in their last win against the Stags.

Follow the reporter on Twitter: natashya_g

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.