MPBL North semis kick off in Pampanga today

Games Friday(Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center, San Fernando, Pampanga)6 p.m. — Nueva Ecija vs San Juan8 p.m. — Pampanga vs Caloocan

REIGNING champion Nueva Ecija shifts its title defense tour to higher gear when it tangles with a familiar foe in San Juan in Game 1 of the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) North Division semifinals at the Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center in San Fernando, Pampanga.

Game time is at 6 p.m., before the duel between No. 1 Pampanga and No. 4 Caloocan in the other pairing at 8 p.m., with the Rice Vanguards eyeing a headstart in the quick best-of-three semis series.

Seeded No. 2 in the elimination round, the Rice Vanguards took care of business against No. 7 Pasay, 2-0, in the quarterfinals for a good momentum entering a rematch with No. 6 San Juan after their division finals duel last year.

Nueva Ecija, which then swept the eliminations with an absurd 21-0 record, subdued San Juan, 2-1, to advance to the national finals and eventually won it all against Zamboanga, 3-1.

This time, the Rice Vanguards brace for a tougher duel.

“We cannot take them for granted,” warned team owner Bong Cuevas on the Knight, who scored a stunning 2-0 sweep of the third-seeded Makati.

Holding the fort against San Juan as the pressure to defend the crown mounts will not be a walk in the park, noted Mr. Cuevas, but he brims with high hopes that his wards mentored by Jerson Cabiltes are ready to weather any storm.

After all, they’re the defending champions for a reason, well-equipped with experience, maturity and poise.

“The expectations are very high for the team to defend the crown. It’s an expectation that we always. (But) Nueva Ecija is a veteran team. If ever who will be able to handle the pressure, it’s this team,” added Mr. Cuevas.

Spearheading Nueva Ecija’s march are Chris Bitoon, Michael Mabulac, Byron Villarias, Roi Sumang, Renz Palma and Michael Juico with Orlan Wamar, Michael Calisaan, Zach Huang, AC Soberano and Adrian Nocum of San Juan standing in their way. — John Bryan Ulanday

Neil Banzuelo

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