The M. Lhuillier Kwarta Padala-Cebu Ninos crowned themselves as the very first Tournament of the Philippines (TOP) National Champions Monday evening with a pulsating 78-76 triumph in the winner-take-all match over archrival Misamis Oriental Meteors at the Cebu Coliseum.  The Ninos ended the best-of-five series, 3-2.

The Ninos, with team owner Michel J. Lhuillier and his family in attendance, nearly threw away the game with sloppy play in the final canto but regained their form in the crunch.  Leading by a dozen after three periods, 66-54, the Ninos suddenly could not find the basket and coupled with poor free throw shooting allowed the Meteors to slowly close the gap behind Patrick Cabahug.

Point guard Froilan Baguion, used sparingly in the first three periods, shone when needed most by setting up Marlon Basco and eventual Most Valuable Player Stephen Padilla for easy baskets and a 77-73 lead at the 29-second mark.

Patrick Cabahug then sank a running triple to put the Meteors within a point, 76-77, and 17 seconds on the clock.  Baguion drew a quick foul from Dino Daa but could make his first and missed the second free throw, 78-76.  The Meteor then blew their chance to tie or go ahead as Eder Saldua and Cabahug missed a combined three close range attempts and the Ninos batted the ball away until the buzzer rang, triggering a celebration that saw the players give Senorito Michel the traditional victory ride.

Just like in the first four games of the series, Game Five was just as emotional and physical.  A ten-minute lull ensued after the referees had to separate Mark Ababon and Daa with 4:55 left in the third canto, in the process leading to an Ababon elbow to Daa’s face, knocking him down.  Both benches erupted in unison, prompting technical fouls on both teams, Ababon and Daa.  The break somewhat halted the rallying Meteors’ control of the game as the Ninos extended their lead from seven to 12 markers by the third period’s end.

Indicating they mean business, the Ninos raced to a 10-0 run to open the contest powered by Nat Cruz.  Meteors coach Jun Noel then brought in Cabahug off the bench and he responded with eight points to close the gap, 8-10.  However, Padilla, Basco and Ariel Mepana took turns give the Ninos the first period, 27-17.

Dacia added a twinner and Mepana a triple to erect the Ninos’ biggest lead, 32-17, at the start of the second period.  The Meteors then turned up their defense, limiting the Ninos to only free throws.  Reed Juntilla scored six points in the second period and that was the all to be heard from the Meteors’ second best scorer after Cabahug, as he went scoreless in the entire second half.  Still, timely hits by Mark Magsumbol and Ian Saladaga towards the end maintained the Ninos’ advantage by halftime, 42-32.

Basco saved his best game for last finishing with 15 points and seven rebounds.  Padilla followed with 12 and Mepana with 11.  Cabahug was his usual prolific self with 20 points.  Neil Raneses and Daa chipped in 10 each as the team sorely missed Juntilla’s offense.

For averaging a team-best 11.2 points in the series, Padilla was named as the TOP’s MVP.  Earlier in the three-month joust jointly organized by the Philippine Basketball League (PBL) and Liga Pilipinas, Padilla garnered two weekly MVP honors in M. Lhuillier’s capture of the opening ANI-FCA Leg and their own Cebu City Leg, the only player to accomplish multiple honors.

Coach Raul “Yayoy” Alcoseba received the trophy from TOP officer-in-charge Perry Martinez.  In a touching moment, the team presented the trophy to M. Lhuillier guard and Liga Pilipinas III MVP Woodraw Enriquez who is recovering from a spinal injury sustained last March and watched the game from his wheelchair.

Monday’s win exorcised the ghosts of the Ninos’ home loss to the Meteors in Game Five of last year’s Liga Pilipinas II wherein they dropped a 52-64 decision with Senorito Lhuillier also in attendance.  The next TOP conference is tentatively scheduled for November of this year.

How They Scored:

M. LHUILLIER-CEBU (78) – Basco 15, Padilla 12, Mepana 11, Ababon 9, Cruz 7, Ybanez 6, Saladaga 5, Dacia 4, Magsumbol 4, Baguion 4, Santos 1, Mondragon 0.

MISAMIS ORIENTAL (76) – Cabahug 20, Daa 10, Raneses 10, Capati 6, Moreno 6, Juntilla 6, Lamocha 5, Taganas 4, Misa 3, Saldua 3, Andaya 2, Reguera 1, Tagupa 0.

Period Scores: 27-17, 42-32, 66-54, 78-76.


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