NUEVA ECIJA will not roll over and die. It’s the reigning — king for a reason.
With their backs against the wall, the Rice Vanguards brim with hope that they can score sweet revenge against rival San Juan to force a winner-take-all Game 3 in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) North Division Finals.
The No. 2 seed Nueva Ecija faltered late in a tough 86-82 Game 1 loss, making it a win-or-go-home tussle in Game 2 against the No. 3 San Juan on Friday on its own turf at the Nueva Ecija Coliseum in Palayan City.
“Pinahaba lang namin iyung series. Bawian natin,” vowed coach Jerson Cabiltes, preaching confidence to his wards, who are armed with enough experience and poise to essay a series comeback.
The Rice Vanguards led by as many as 14 points, including a 12-point lead at the half, against San Juan, only to cool down and allow a fiery San Juan comeback to find themselves down in the short best-of-three series.
Nueva Ecija, which swept No. 7 Pasay in the quarterfinals, now has to win the last two games to keep its title defense alive.
The Bong Cuevas-owned squad has been in the same situation before and succeeded in style at the expense of the same squad to eventually clinch the MPBL crown.
Last season, Nueva Ecija swept the elimination round before absorbing its first defeat against San Juan in the North Division finals, 72-79.
The vengeful Rice Vanguards went on to win the next two matches, 89-83 and 84-68, to march on to the national finals, where they made short work of Zamboanga, 3-1.
Against the odds, Nueva Ecija is out to repeat history with mainstays like Chris Bitoon, Michael Mabulac, Bryon Villarias, Renz Palma, Will McAloney and Michael Juico leading the way. — John Bryan Ulanday