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Cardinals Shot for its Best Finish in NCAA Basketball for the first time in 27 years

Seven years ago.

The Mapúa Cardinals are among the top basketball teams in the country’s oldest league. This was then led by the back-to-back Most Valuable Player Allwell Oraeme, who was in his prime of dominating the collegiate basketball world with his top-tier performance at that time. During that time, all is well, and the future is bright for the hot-scorching Cardinals.

But then, those dreams were shattered when he left the Cardinals.

During those seven years, the Cardinals had ups and downs. With the teams dominated by the likes of San Beda Red Lions, San Sebastian Stags, Perpetual Altas, Arellano Chiefs, and the Letran Knights, the Cardinals missed the Final Four.

However, things began to change with the coming of Coach Randy Alcantara. The future is bright as the Champion coach from the juniors division was once again reunited with his old pals like Warren Bonifacio, Paolo Hernandez, Jasper Salenga, Brian Lacap, and other former Red Robins. Despite losing Clint Escamis to the UE Red Warriors, and former Juniors MVP Will Gozum to the UP Fighting Maroons at that time, the Cardinals saw some light as they tried to reach the Final Four. The Cardinals then, in Season 95, almost made it with Cyril Gonzalez, Warren Bonifacio, Lawrence Victoria, and Noah Lugo leading the charge.

But, a pandemic came. Challenges began to loom on the Cardinals' gun for Season 96 title. No practice. No basketball. Every team in every league was challenged by the pandemic including the Cardinals. Some decided to forego their final playing years. Some have already graduated. Some transferred schools. These are only a few challenges the teams, including the Cardinals, faced during the pandemic. No basketball in NCAA Season 96.

But there is always hope.

Finally, after almost two years, the NCAA formally announced that there would be basketball for Season 97. This time, the team will be headed by Team Captain Warren Bonifacio and Joaquin Garcia, Paolo Hernandez, Arvin Gamboa, Jasper Salenga, and Adrian Nocum, who were the mainstays of the Season 95 Mapúa Cardinals. They will be supported by rookies like JJ Pido, Ryan Sual, Miguel Milan, Ferdinand Asuncion, Donyel Udal, Jomer Mercado, and recruits like Toby Agustin, Jopet Soriano, and Ivan Santos.

New-looked Cardinals, right?

With teams like San Beda Red Lions and Letran Knights being heavily favored for the much-anticipated title run, who would have thought that the Cardinals will be in the Final Four this season?

Not until the NCAA Season 97 had finally begun.

The Surge

After the toughest training routines and sacrifices, the time has come to show off the hard work and practice the game plan.

The Cardinals’ first game for this season against the Generals of Emilio Aguinaldo College is nerve-racking because the first 20 minutes ended with a tie of 32-32 score. The grit to win of Mapúa Cardinals had never faded until the tension was added when the Generals edged the play with 60-51 points. High hopes are still present to win the game despite a 9-point gap. In the end, the team played their first game as if it was their last, especially Warren Bonifacio and Carl Brian Lacap, who made the Cardinals one step closer to the win with a score of 73-67.

Their experience in their first game is indeed a pool of lessons. They determined the loopholes in their strategy since the opponent had the chance to be at an advantage. With only five days before their second game versus Jose Rizal University, Mapúa University Cardinals composed themselves again and eyed for another win.

The first half against the JRU Heavy Bombers lit the chance of bringing home the trophy with a 14-point advantage. Unfortunately, the same footwork brought their steps to the same situation as what happened in their game versus the Generals. Mapúa Cardinals are destined to be on the lower hand against the JRU Heavy Bombers with 51-47 in the third period. This time, Paolo Hernandez did his part to regain the lead with free throws and a three-pointer. Team Captain, Warren Bonifacio, played his role to secure the victory at 59-56.

Triumph is more felt the third time around.

After four days, the Cardinals faced another challenging opponent but not challenging enough to steal the three straight winning record. The San Sebastian College-Recoletos Golden Stags did not guard enough and let the Cardinals snatch the triumphant ending at 65-59. Since the beginning of the period, the Cardinals did not miss chances of getting a score not until the Golden Stags leveled up the tactics with a 5-0 run in the last quarter. Fortunately, Paolo Hernandez and Warren Bonifacio took part in the offense and defense to seal their third win. The proud head coach, Randy Alcantara, humbly admitted that the team has not expected to achieve a 3-0 record this season. Yet, the performance of his players exceeded the instructions and his expectations.

The Collapse

The Cardinals are on track to notch win number four but on their way are the heavily-favored defending champion, the Colegio San Juan de Letran Knights, in the Battle of Intramuros. The new-look Letran Knights are very different with the addition of new beasts in the name of the high-flying forwards Rhenz Abando and Brent Paraiso. As expected, the first quarter was a very tight match-up, not until the beast was unleashed to lead the charge for the Knights. The Cardinals were caught off-guard by the pesky defense of the Knights. The Knights ended the game with a 20-point blowout, 60-80.

Coming from a loss, the Cardinals will try to keep their morale up high as they face another defensive beast in the name of Justin Arana. The former defensive player of the year came off to an almost scary injury but had to lift the hopes of the struggling Chiefs to reach the play-in tournament. However, shooting woes continued for the Cardinals. Just in time, Justin Arana received the much-anticipated help from his teammates to capture the win, extending Mapúa’s losing streak to two, 72-63.

With the Cardinals facing a two-game losing streak, questions began to arise about whether they could bounce back to the back-to-back losses they have gained at the expense of the Letran Knights and the Arellano Chiefs.

The Rise

A wounded soldier won’t always back down.

A week after the back-to-back losses in the hands of the Knights and the Chiefs, the Cardinals will now face the Las Pinas-based squad, the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta Altas. The Cardinals indeed need to win the crucial match to avoid being ousted from the play-in tournament. Though elimination games are still far, the competition is crucial for perennial contenders and foes in the name of College of Saint Benilde Blazers and San Beda Red Lions await the fate of the Cardinals.

The game is a deciding point, after all.

In one of the most crucial battles in NCAA, the spirit of a true warrior was awakened as the Cardinals sealed their fourth win of the season after dumping the Altas, 95-83. This game seems unforgettable, as the Cardinals, who were once at the bottom regarding field goal percentage, immediately rise after draining 16 out of 25 three-point barrages. Toby Agustin saved the day for the Cardinals as he scored a career-high of 24 points, with 5 of 7 shooting from the rainbow country. Almost all the Cardinals contributed in both offensive and defensive end. Though the Altas almost stole the win, the Cardinals were hungry for the win and prevailed. The Cardinals showed us what we need to expect as the true threat arises.

Heavy assignments continue for the Cardinals. A familiar rival from Taft stands in the way of the Cardinals on the road to the Final Four. The CSB Blazers will parade the tallest player in the league and the former NCAA Juniors MVP and Malayan Red Robins star, Will Gozum. The match is expected to be difficult with the presence of Benilde Fil-Am star AJ Benson, who was very effective in both offense and defense.

As expected, the match was very tight from the first half. The Cardinals and Blazers exchange big buckets. However, the Cardinals prevailed in the second half as their killer defense continued, coupled with their hot shooting from the rainbow country. The Cardinals again reached double figures, shooting from the arc, as they finished with 12-three-pointers, completing a total of 28 three-pointers in their last two games, the most in the league. The Cardinals never turned back, ending the match with a wire-to-wire victory, 84-65. Aside from topping the three-point field goal percentage, the Cardinals grab the solo-third. With the impressive performance of the Cardinals, the Red Lions finally recognized the rise of the new threat.

Finally, the long wait is over. It will be the Cardinals going up against the Red Lions. Since the start of the NCAA, the Red Lions and the Knights are forecasted to face in the Finals. Well, in fact, games were adjusted just to give way for the most anticipated match-up, which expects the battle of the undefeated and a rematch of the NCAA Season 95 finals. However, with the confidence gained by the Cardinals, this match is expected to be difficult. And the fate of the two teams awaits.

The Cardinals and the Red Lions are both eyeing a twice-to-beat advantage. A Red Lions win against the Cardinals will assure them the prize. However, a loss will put their chances away, and they must beat the archrival Letran, who is eyeing an NCAA sweep.

With their fate at stake, the game is crucial for both teams. We never knew that the Cardinals never won a game against the Red Lions in the Season 95 edition. Now, the Cardinals are ready to prove the new beast in them.

The first quarter of the match was all about exchanging buckets, with Mapúa’s Brian Lacap and San Beda’s James Kwekutuye leading the way. The second quarter of the game is all about how good defense leads to good offense. However, both teams are seen struggling from the offensive end with an excellent exchange of defense. The Cardinals won 2 straight quarters in a row. However, the second half seems to be different. Both teams adjusted; however, the Cardinals prevailed in both offense and defense. However, both teams are still exchanging buckets, and a couple of turnovers woes the Red Lions. In a rare scenario, the Cardinals sweep all the quarters to grab the much-anticipated win in pursuit of snatching the twice-to-beat advantage to the Red Lions.

The last assignment of the Cardinals for the season is the Pirates. A win against the Lyceum Pirates will finally assure their fate to the play-in spot and a return to Final 4. The Cardinals need to wait for the fate of San Beda Red Lions whose last assignment is the Letran Knights. However, an upset from the Pirates will assure the Red Lions the twice-to-beat advantage.

With the twice-to-beat advantage at stake, the Cardinals never backed down as they sank the Pirates ship, booting out the Lyceum’s chance to the play-in tournament, 75-65. Paolo Hernandez and Toby Agustin led the way with 13 points apiece.

The Cardinals are now waiting for the result of the much-anticipated San Beda Red Lions and Letran Knights in the battle of archrivals.

The Final Four

While the Cardinals are waiting for their Final Four fate, the San Beda - Letran match-up is something that every Mapúan awaits for.

In the last game of the elimination round last April 29, 2022, the first live viewing of NCAA since the pandemic finally began featuring the battle between the Letran Knights and the San Beda Red Lions.

Eyeing for a sweep, the Knights successfully escaped the Red Lions den as they shut down the doors of the Red Lions to twice-to-beat advantage and swept the season with a 9-0 win-loss card, 59-56.

Rhenz Abando, the beast, turned hero for the Cardinals, sank the two-game winning free throws to give his team the win and the Cardinals a twice-to-beat spot after a heartbreaker in their elimination match-up where the Knights prevailed.

The Cardinals will now wait between the winners of the San Beda Red Lions and CSB Blazers in the first-ever play-in-tournament.

The Rematch

The San Beda Red Lions and the CSB Blazers are expected to be a tight match-up. Whoever wins will face the Cardinals in the Final Four.

Determined to clinch the Final Four seat, the San Beda Red Lions immediately grab the win against the struggling Blazers and arrange a rematch against the Cardinals in a quest to the NCAA Finals.

The Do-or-Die

For the first time in 14 years, the Mapúa Cardinals dealt the San Beda Red Lions their worst finish after landing at the number 3 spot. However, there is no easy basketball as San Beda is the most experienced team in the playoffs.

Awarded with a twice-to-beat advantage, the Cardinals are on track to entering the Finals for the first time in 27 years. It was in 1995 when Mapúa last tasted entered the Finals, where they eventually lost to the San Sebastian Golden Stags. But as expected, experience is the key as the Red Lions denied the Cardinals an automatic entry to the Finals via overtime 73-67. It was a hard-fought victory led by Ralph Penuela and Franz Abuda, vital cogs in the Final appearances of San Beda for the past years. It was a heartbreaking loss for the Cardinals as the game-winning free throws of Bryan Lacap went out of the rim, forcing San Beda to encapsulate a deuce to force the first overtime of the season. The overtime became an advantage to the Red Lions as they gained momentum to snatch the win against the Cardinals.

However, the Cardinals never gave up.

In the historic do-or-die game, the Cardinals avenged their defeat as they ended the 17-year-Finals appearance of San Beda and the 27-year-Finals appearance drought of the Cardinals, 70 - 67. A hard-fought victory of the Cardinals led to their first taste of a final appearance for the last 27 years, and they are on track to end the 31-year championship drought. It was indeed a sweet victory night for the Cardinals.

However, the archrival Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights is standing in their way, who are eyeing a back-to-back championship.

Will the Cardinals finally draw the first-blood to the unscathed Knights record?

Or will the Knights sweep off the series?

Back to the finals after 31 years

Since 1991, Mapúa Cardinals made thousands of dribbles, hundreds of three-point shots, and countless court violations to be in the spotlight again in the NCAA.

A long journey, indeed. A flood of blood and sweat from different legend batches of the Mapúan basketball varsity team has made the ladder to the championship more durable and stable. The unexpected advances of the Mapúa Cardinals to the finals blew the whole NCAA community apart. Their historical performance in season 97 not just broke their own record but also disrupted the consistent finals appearances of competitive universities.

Mapúa University, formerly Mapúa Institute of Technology, joined the NCAA basketball league in 1930, and the Cardinals brought home gold trophies in 1949, 1965, 1981, 1990, and 1991. Throughout the years, the team honed several professional and greatest PBA players, such as Atoy Co, Abe Masculino, and Alvin Patrimonio.

Mapúa Cardinals seemed to be an underdog for more than 30 years of being absent in the line-up of best of the best teams in the NCAA. Their recent play made the Cardinal soar higher than anyone would have thought.

Unfortunately, the team came short and landed in the silver spot. In Game 1 of the Finals, the Cardinals almost stained the record of the Knights at a striking distance until a minute-game collapse led to the victory of the Knights after stealing the lead and denying the Cardinals, 68-63. Brent Paraiso and Louise Sangalang led the scoring department for the Knights with 14 points a piece.

The Game 2 of the Finals seems to be a decider for the Knights as they toppled the Cardinals with a 20-point route in the first half. However, a late-game scare of the Cardinals cut the deficit of the Knights in the final half, but the remaining 20 minutes of the game were not enough, allowing the Knights to seal the victory and bring home the much anticipated back-to-back championship. The Knights were led by PBA-bound Jeo Ambohot, who celebrated its victor with a Finals MVP trophy, a championship, and a 3rd pick in the recently concluded PBA draft.

In this NCAA season 97, Letran Knights did not hesitate to beat the Mapúa Cardinals twice in the championship games. That was a great chance to bring back the title after 31 years, but it is still proof that the Mapúa Cardinals have an opportunity to be the number one.

NCAA season 97 is a hit or miss for the Mapúa Cardinals. It ended with a missed shot, but maybe in the 32nd year, they might have a chance.

Viva Mapúa. Cardinals, fight, big fight.


Lead writer: Sean Canapi Assistant writer: Alekxandra Sison

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