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CEU outlasts small-ball St. Clare in NAASCU finals opener

By Ivan Saldajeno

MAKATI--CEU banked on clutch moments from Rodrigue Ebondo to pip St. Clare, 83-78, in Game 1 of the NAASCU finals at the Makati Coliseum on Thursday.

Ebondo soared for a block against Alvin Detubio and nailed five straight points in the dying moments to move the Scorpions, the defending champions, to the brink of another league crown against the Saints.

CEU appeared to be heading to a rout as it took a 37-28 halftime lead, but St. Clare, which went small for most of the game despite its big man Jeff Aguara being not in foul trouble, nearly matched its halftime output in just the third quarter to force a 55-all deadlock entering the fourth.

Both teams went toe-to-toe for most of the final period, but Samboy De Leon ignited the crucial 7-0 Scorpions run with a deuce with 1:36 remaining for a 74-72 lead.

Ebondo then came to work by swatting Detubio's attempt in the next play, and he was rewarded with a lay-in to stretch the lead to four with 54.4 seconds left.

CEU then forced a five-second violation on St. Clare, and Ebondo once again made his opponent pay with a dagger three with 32 seconds to go to give his team a 79-72.

The Scorpions, however, were still out of the woods as Jonathan Ibarra made two free throws in the next Saints possession and Mon Abundo missed two gift shots of his own later.

But Aris Dionisio lost the ball to Abundo after the rebound, and the latter bounced back from his free throw woes by going 2-for-2 in his next trip, eventually sealing the win for CEU.

Still, Coach Egay Macaraya admitted that St. Clare's small-ball game gave his team a hard time.

"Nahirapan kami when they [went] small. Hopefully, maka-adjust kami in the next game, because the strategy of going small was working," Macaraya told the press after the game.

Ebondo made 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 13 rebounds, one assist, one block, and two steals, while Abundo added 16 points, one rebound, one assist, and two steals for the Scorpions, who can sweep the series on Saturday at the RTU Gym.

Ibarra led the Saints, who will need to get the Saturday win to force the decider back at the Makati Coliseum on Monday, with 18 markers, two dimes, and one swipe.

Box Scores:

CEU 83-Ebondo 19, Abundo 16, Opiso 14, De Leon 11, Jeruta 10, CasiƱo 5, Manlangit 4, Arim 4, Anunciacion 0, Celso 0, Gallemit 0

St. Clare 78-Ibarra 18, Dionisio 11, Managuelod 10, Detubio 10, Lunor 8, Acebron 6, Galvelo 5, Rios 4, Mendoza 4, Aguara 2

Quarterscores: 17-17, 37-28, 55-55, 83-78

Follow the writer on Twitter: @IvanSaldajeno