Gutsy Cardinals upset Red Lions, leaving Knights alone on top

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Mapua Cardinals in the NCAA Season 97. NCAA/GMA PHOTO

Paolo Hernandez throws himself with consistent ferocity every game regardless of the opponent, a mindset embraced by the Mapua Cardinals throughout the ongoing NCAA Season 97 men’s basketball tournament.

That very same frame of mind and the Cardinals’ dogged determination tamed perennial contender San Beda, 68-54, on Saturday, an upset that threatened to ruin a predestined Finals script that everybody has been expecting.

“We treat all teams here as contenders. There are no weak teams, so we approach every game with the same mindset and work as hard as we can,’’ said Hernandez, whose stellar performance led Mapua to its sixth victory in eight games.

The Cardinals simply outworked the Lions, whose anticipated championship date with the defending titleholders Letran Knights was put in doubt following their first defeat after seven matches.

“I’m always ready, whether I play as a starter or a second-stringer,’’ said Hernandez, who lit up the stats sheet with 14 points and 13 rebounds off the bench.

Remaining fastened to third place, the Cardinals now only trail the Red Lions by half a game as they aim to cap the single-round eliminations with a flourish on Wednesday against the Lyceum Pirates.

“It’s a great feeling to beat one of the top teams,’’ said Mapua captain Warren Bonifacio, who embodied the Cardinals’ stubbornness built on pure grit and hustle with 13 points, four boards and three blocks.

“All the hard work in practice paid off,’’ added Bonifacio.

Not only did the Cardinals stall San Beda’s march to the Final Four, they likewise dealt the Lions’ worst beating in years.

James Kwekuteye had 14 points and 11 rebounds while Ralph Penuela added 13 points for the Lions, whose biggest losing margin before Saturday was a 91-72 loss to the Arellano Chiefs in 2015.

San Beda’s defeat left the defending champions Letran Knights alone on top after their 81-59 rout of the Jose Rizal Heavy Bombers in the other game.

Jeo Ambohot had 14 points and 12 rebounds while Brent Paraiso buried three triples for 12 points as the Knights remained unbeaten after eight games and could sweep the eliminations with victories over the San Sebastian Stags on Tuesday and the Red Lions on Friday.

San Beda will be under heavy pressure against Letran, as a loss could open the door for Mapua to make a suprising spring to second place.

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