By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
AFTER a break of two weeks, the National Collegiate Athletic Association resumes action with the championship rounds of Season 95, beginning with the first rung of the step-ladder semifinals today at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City.
Third-seeded Letran Knights (12-6) and number four team San Sebastian Stags (11-7) battle in a knockout match set for 4 p.m. for the right to advance to the next step of the step-ladder, rendered as such after the defending champions San Beda Red Lions (18-0) swept the two-round eliminations.
Waiting for the winner between Letran and San Sebastian are the Lyceum Pirates, who finished second in the standings with a 13-5 card.
The Knights and Stags split their two encounters in the classification phase, with San Sebastian narrowly taking the first round, 102-101, and Letran bouncing back in the second, 99-82.
Letran is the best offensive team in the NCAA in the elimination round with an average of 84.3 points per contest, and is led by veteran Jerrick Balanza with 15.1 points, followed by Larry Muyang (12.8 ppg), Ato Ular (11.2 ppg) and Bonbon Batiller (10.5 ppg).
The Knights finished the classification phase on a high note, racking up three straight victories.
“Of course, we wanted to be on top of the standings but we ended up here (third). We’ll just work on where we are. After all, it’s not about how you start the season but how you finish it,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan.
Last year the Knights also ended up in third spot but lost out in the semifinals to Lyceum.
San Sebastian, for its part, tinkered with early elimination but eventually found the finishing kick it needed to advance to the next round as the fourth seed.
The Stags’ push is led by league top-scorer Allyn Bulanadi (20.3 ppg), who exploded for 44 points in their victory over the Perpetual Help Altas in their final game of the eliminations on Oct. 18 to clinch a Final Four spot.
Veteran RK Ilagan is also steady for San Sebastian with a scoring norm of 14.7 ppg and 4.1 apg, both seventh best in the league.
“We’re happy to be in the semifinals,” said Stags coach Egay Macaraya after their win over the Altas even as he shared that they are hoping that the long break heading into the step-ladder would provide his players enough time to rest and recover.
San Sebastian makes a Final Four return after missing out on the playoff bus last year.
The NCAA step-ladder semifinals can been seen live over S+A and iWant.