MANILA, Philippines – Defending champion Letran and Mapua seek to forge an all-Intramuros finale showdown as they take on lower-ranked Final Four foes Sunday in the NCAA Season 97 men's basketball tournament at the Filoil Flying V Centre.
The unbeaten Knights go up against fourth-ranked University of Perpetual Help System Dalta at noon, while the No. 2 Cardinals hope to make it to the biggest stage in their 3 p.m. duel with third-ranked San Beda.
Holding twice-to-beat advantages, victories by Letran and Mapua will force a best-of-three Finals series for the Intramuros rivals for the first time since 1990. The title round will start on May 15.
While the Knights are eyeing a second consecutive Finals appearance, the Cardinals seek to barge to the league's biggest stage since 1991, when Benny Cheng scored the championship-clinching shot.
Coach Bonnie Tan was surprised the way Letran pulled off a nine-game sweep in the short elims.
"Yung expectation to defend the crown nandoon but yung winning all the games sa elimination, hindi namin na-expect. We are blessed na ibinigay sa amin ang panalo," said Tan.
The top defensive team in the elims, the Knights are not taking the Altas lightly.
"We always challenge the team to limit the scoring ng mga teams na nakakalaban namin. Lahat, we treat every game as a championship game, from the lower-ranked hanggang sa itaas," said Tan.
Coach Randy Alcantara was still amazed the way Mapua finished the elims at 7-2. One of those victories was a 68-54 romp of the Red Lions that gave the Cardinals the No. 2 ranking.
"Hindi pa rin kami makapaniwala. Hindi pa rin kami sanay. Wish ko lang talaga maging healthy mga players," said Alcantara.
Mapua is expected to be at full strength but the Red Lions are hoping that its leading scorer, James Kwekuteye, will be in peak form as well after injuring his ankle in last week's 63-57 play-in win over College of Saint Benilde.
"Meron silang gustong mapatunayan. Meron silang gustong ma-improve. Unti-unti nakukuha every day sa practice. Sa start ng bubble, pinaghirapan nila iyon at sila naman ang nag-perform para nakaabot kami dito," said Alcantara of his team.
"Kaya thankful at mga boys natin na sumunod at ginawa sa gusto naming mangyari," he added.
With their pride at stake, the Lions are trying to avoid missing the Finals for the first time since 2005.
If Perpetual and San Beda prevail, the semi finals decider will be played on Wednesday.