I was actually rooting for the Mapua Cardinals to win the championship for the sole reason that this could help Warren Bonifacio get a PBA contract.
With that said, Bonifacio bombed in the Finals. This made me think of his numbers when the Cardinals battled the Letran Knights in the NCAA 97 Finals. I think he did better back then, but the Knights, led by Finals MVP Jeo Ambohot and Rookie MVP Rhenz Abando alongside Fran Yu, Brent Paraiso, Louie Sangalang, Allen Mina, Pao Javillonar, Tommy Olivario, King Caralipio, and Kurt Reyson, among others, were just too strong for them.
I guess the same can be said with Clint Escamis, especially in the decider. JC Recto and Cyrus Cuenco stepped up, with Peter Rosillo helping their cause in Game 1, but all eyes were latched on Season 99's Rookie MVP. While Escamis shot and attacked the basket with malicious intent, his shot selections weren't that good. In some ways, it was like Jordan Clarkson leading Gilas Pilipinas against I guess, the Dominican Republic. Paolo Hernandez could have helped if the ball got into his hands, and the same can be said with Warren Bonifacio if he could establish his presence in the paint.
Also, Mapua missed a lot of their free throws. They were able to cut and tie the Red Lions at the end of the first half but then again, they should have been leading the game at the start of the second half had they made at least five of their shots. The refs handed Bonifacio a freebie in the second quarter and he muffed both free throws, as well as an and-one opportunity. Jopet Soriano also missed two free throws during that stretch.
As far as graduating players are concerned, I believe Bonifacio and San Sebastian's Romel Calahat need to have an opportunity to play in the PBA this season. Cliff Jopia is going to sign with Blackwater, and while Damie Cuntapay's Terrafirma selection is an unlikely possibility, we could see him take part in MVP-team practices en route to a possible PBA stint.
One what-if for the Cardinals is Adrian Nocum's pro move. He passed on a Mapua return at the start of Season 99 to focus on his stint with the San Juan Knights and the PBA. Nocum ended up getting picked at number 24 by Rain or Shine, 31 places before Bonifacio. Nocum helped lead the Knights to a Final Four finish in the MPBL and during his first three games, he is averaging 11 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists for the Elasto Painters.
Yes, Nocum would have helped the Cardinals, especially during their droughts, but his entry would have in some ways, lessened the importance of Escamis. Yes, Mapua ended their season poorly, but with Escamis at the helm, they are going to be contenders.
Now, enough Mapua talk.
As mentioned at the start of the article, the San Beda Red Lions returned to the top with the Letran Knights hovering at the bottom. Since the 1998 and 1999 NCAA seasons which were headlined by the likes of Christian Calaguio, Erwin Velez, Willie Miller, JP Prior, and Kerby Raymundo, the Knights and the Red Lions have given the championship to the other teams a mere five times. San Sebastian got three of the five with Leo Najorda, Jam Alfad, Christian Coronel, and Pep Moore headlining the first two and the last one with The Pinatubo Trio of Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang, and Ronald Pascual. Sunday Salvacion's Benilde Blazers got the title in 2000 and in 2004, the PCU Dolphins got their lone championship led by future PBA stars Jayson Castro and Beau Belga.
San Beda played in the NCAA Finals from 2006 to 2019 but for most NCAA fans, this is because the Red Lions always had a foreign backup. This is why their 23rd championship is much sweeter as compared to their other titles, in my opinion. With Boyet Fernandez stepping down from the coaching post, Yuri Escueta looked to make this team his own. With James Kwekuteye and JB Bahio moving to the pros, and Tony Ynot, Gab Cometa, and Justine Sanchez going from red to Benilde green, it felt like this was their rebuilding phase. It didn't help that Escueta began to experiment with his lineup, going with Jacob Cortez as his main man and Yukien Andrada, James Payosing, and high-flying Fil-Canadian Jomel Puno as his main guns, with Peter Alfaro, Cliff Jopia, Damie Cuntapay, JV Gallego, and Alex Visser to secondary roles. As it turned out, this move was for the better. The Red Lions also had a slew of pesky combo guards in Emman Tagle, AJ Royo, and Nygel Gonzales.
Tagle and Royo gave the Red Lions ample support in the entire series with Gonzales exploding as the super magic bunot in the do-or-die match. While Jopia is a lanky 6'9 center, he is also a player who barely averages 6 points and 6 rebounds per contest. With that said though, San Beda's dramatic turnaround happened when they were using the vets less and the new guys more.
Anyway, the difference between the Red Lions and the Cardinals revolves around their main men. With Mapua, they won Game 1 because Ecsamis struggled and Hernandez and Rosillo emerged as mid-game help. In the fourth quarter, Ecsamis got his form while on the other side, Cortez struggled mightily. In Game 2, Cortez went off with Recto, Hernandez, and Soriano to help Ecsamis out. With that said, Ecsamis continued to bomb his shots, going 4-of-21 from the field.
In Game 3, Cortez battled with cramps but his problems were neutralized by the insane shooting of Gonzales, as well as from reliables Andrada and Payosing. Andrada looked awesome with how he went lawless with his triples. If and when he decides to jump to the pros, it's hard to discount a 6'5 combo forward that can detonate long-distance bombs. As for Payosing, the newly-crowned Finals MVP is going to be a problem for other teams in the future because he has the attitude and the skills to become a top guy. In some ways, Payosing got lucky when Ynot decided to move to the Blazers. I can see him moving to the starting lineup in Season 100 to help build a new dominant crew with Cortez and Andrada. Meanwhile, Ecsamis went 4-of-22 in the decider and got a combined ten points from Hernandez and Bonifacio. Recto continued his valuable showing with another double-double with Rosillo also scoring in double digits. San Beda had Fernandez and Norman Black as super deputies to Escueta and their combined collegiate championship might be too much for Randy Alcantara and Yong Garcia to handle.
The problem I see in Mapua is that they could lose Hernandez to the pros next season and Ecsamis could look for other opportunities similar to that of Migs Oczon. On the other hand, Cortez is just right for the Red Lions. In the dying minutes of the game and with cramps affecting his game, he turned to his teammates and gave them pointers. This is something these two rivals are going to check out since they'll probably face each other in many high-profile battles.
After a brief stint in "just" semi-final land, the San Beda Red Lions are back in the driver's seat. San Beda has a juniors division to latch on to if they need new blood and their title drive should impress other ballers. At the moment, UP's Bismarck Lina, FEU's Bryan Sajonia, and Alex Teruel are going to boost the chances of their repeat.