Nueva Ecija pips Imus, sets MPBL final showdown vs. Basilan

Michael Mabulac lived up to his MVP hype. Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas/MPBL
By Ivan Saldajeno

PASAY--It's Basilan versus Nueva Ecija in the "PHP2 Million Game".

The Rice Vanguards earned the right to face the Steel in the final of the Chooks-to-Go MPBL Invitational after stopping the Imus Bandera, 82-76, in the second semifinal early Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Nueva Ecija broke free midway through the fourth quarter and withstood one last push from Imus to clinch the last seat in the championship game.

Just holding a slim 62-61 lead with 7:21 left in the semifinal, the Rice Vanguards opened a 12-0 run to stretch their lead to 13, 74-61, with 3:55 left.

The Bandera still crawled their way back to the game, trimming the gap to just four, 80-76, with 21 seconds to go.

But two dagger free throws from Byron Villarias iced the game for Nueva Ecija.

Fresh from winning the Most Valuable Player of the tournament before the game, Michael Mabulac led the Rice Vanguards, who will essentially face the Steel later Thursday for all the marbles and the PHP2 million championship prize, with 17 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, one block, and two steals.

Villarias and JP Sarao each added 13 markers.

Leo Najorda made 24 points, four boards, two dimes, and three steals, while Ian Melencio got 22 markers, four caroms, three assists, and one steal for the Bandera, who can still finish their Cinderella run on a high note with a win over the Pasig-Sta. Lucia Realtors in the battle for third place also later Thursday.

The Scores:

Nueva Ecija 82 - Mabulac 17, Villarias 13, Sarao 13, Bitoon 12, Gutang 9, Sumang 7, Palma 6, Bulacanag 5, Gozum 0, Dario 0.

Imus-Buracai De Laiya 76 - Najorda 24, Melencio 22, Eguilos 12, Reyson 9, Mangalino 7, Bragais 2, Llagas 0, Rogado 0, Mescalado 0, Tan 0, Santos 0.

Quarterscores: 18-16, 37-35, 53-53, 82-76.

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