The San Beda Red Lions could have easily conceded defeat in the NCAA Season 99.
First off, five key players chose not to return following their Final Four exit in the previous season with veterans James Kwekuteye and JB Bahio making the jump to the pros and promising stars Tony Ynot, Justine Sanchez, and Gab Cometa all transferring to De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. The quintet comprised of most of the core of the Mendiola crew in Season 98, combining for 46.23 of their 75.74 points per game.
San Beda head coach Yuri Escueta didn't have much choice but to make do with what was left of the team, and it took the Red Lions some time to resharpen their claws.
UPS AND DOWNS
It was an up and down campaign for them in Season 99.
They started off strong winning six of their first eight games, with losses only to eventual finalist Mapua and red-hot LPU.
But they hit a tough stretch after that, dropping games to lower-ranked teams like Arellano and San Sebastian before recovering against EAC. Luck continued to avoid them in losses to Perpetual and Mapua, as they fell to 8-6, and dipped momentarily out of the Final Four picture, slipping to fifth.
"Losses are, hindi naman alarming, pero syempre frustrating. We can’t dwell too much on these losses kasi may games na kami agad ng Wednesday and every game now counts, especially na lahat ay naghahabol sa Final Four," head coach Yuri Escueta said after a 71-69 heartbreaker to Mapua last November 12.
"I don’t know if it’s alarming, but it’s frustrating. If we win, time to focus on the next game. If we lost, time to focus on the next game and see what we can do better. Hindi pwedeng magdamdam sa NCAA kasi sunod-sunod ‘yung games."
[Losses are, not alarming, but frustrating, of course. We can't dwell too much on these losses because we have already have games to play on Wednesday and every game now counts, especially as everyone is chasing the Final Four... I don't know if it's alarming, but it's frustrating. If we we win, time to focus on the next game. If we lose, time to focus on the next game and see what we can do better. You can't be in your feelings in the NCAA because the game come one after another.]
They completed their revenge tour against Benilde - the team that ousted them last season - and took care of business against JRU.
Yukien Andrada then exploded for 26 points to lead the Red Lions to a 74-56 rout of LPU in a crucial clash between Final Four contenders - a matchup that would become a preview of the semis held later on.
To close out the elimination round, they capped their season with a 76-68 victory over longtime rival Letran to head to the playoffs as the third seed. They swept their last four games and finished with a 12-6 record.
OVERCOMING THE ODDS
Despite the strong finish, the Red Lions entered the Final Four without a twice-to-beat advantage for a third straight season.
They faced a second-seeded Pirates team that held high hopes of returning to the NCAA Finals.
But in Game 1, Jacob Cortez proved he might just be the next big thing.
The third-year San Beda guard continued his rise to stardom as he torched LPU for a career-high 28 points, built around four triples. He also tallied four rebounds, eight assists, and three steals en route to a dominant 89-68 victory that forced a rubber match.
The Pirates did a much better job against Cortez in Game 2, limiting him to just seven points on 2-for-8 shooting. With skipper Enoch Valdez leaving it all on the floor - scoring 28 points while guarding the budding San Beda star - LPU looked like it could get the job done.
But the Red Lions got contributions from unlikely sources with sophomore James Payosing posting an 18-10 double-double and rookie Jomel Puno and Nygel Gonzales proving their worth with 15 and 11 markers respectively to overcome the Pirates.
"Ilang beses ko na sinabi sa inyo ‘to, the team could have easily folded. But they came together and they said to themselves, matagal pa ‘to," Escueta said on the heels of their Game 2 win last Friday.
[I've told you this before, the team could have easily folded. But they came together and they said to themselves, we have a long way to go.]
Now, San Beda is back in the NCAA Finals, where they can deliver the school's 23rd overall title and the first since Season 95, and the Red Lions are peaking at the perfect time.
They may have had reasons to quit, but this current crop of Red Lions have found even more reasons to fight.
"There’s a responsibility that goes with representing the school so we just make sure that we prepare and that we do our best," added Escueta.
—JMB, GMA Integrated News
This article How San Beda revived its NCAA Season 99 campaign and moved closer to title redemption was originally published in GMA News Online.2023-12-05T13:06:13Z dg43tfdfdgfd