If unbeaten Master Tapsi were hoping for a quick shutdown of Smart Dragons after last Wednesday’s victory in the first of the three-game final of the Chitato Chips Mini Basketball tournament, they were in for a rude surprise at the Cambodian Country Club court on Sunday night.
The Dragons’ last-minute inclusion Matt van Pelt fashioned a 85-78 win for the side to level the series 1-1 and drive it to the title decider on Wednesday evening.
The Dragons spectacular showing left the well rounded and usually sharp Tapsi dismayed as their gameplan was shattered by the presence of Van Pelt, who was called in hours before the tip-off from his base in Thailand.
The leading member of the 2015 CBL-winning Mekong Tigers proved his all-round ability in the smartest way possible. His ball distribution, guarding and sinking of crucial free throws all helped disrupt Tapsi’s freeflowing game, though he accrued just nine points to his name.
After matching basket to basket in the first quarter, Dragons stretched their 17-16 lead to 42-30 with a much stronger second quarter display.
Tapsi’s confidence continued to drop as Janno Cunnanan and Aimar Sabayo were unable to keep the scoreboard ticking like in previous matches.
Dong Menghamal’s 3-point shooting seemed wayward. But at the other end, Jeff Kane had a field day, hitting four 3-pointers from different spots, while Sean Looney and Henry Curran dominated the paint, winning rebounds and blocking off several Tapsi offensives.
The third quarter ended with Dragons ahead by 10 points.
Dara Rithy, the only Cambodian among the 24 players on both sides, was the star attraction with 18 points as he struck up a productive partnership with Van Pelt.
Rithy was eventually fouled out, but the former Mekong Tigers star had done enough to keep the Dragons in the title hunt.
A slight let-up by the Dragons at the start of the fourth quarter encouraged Tapsi to step up their offence to the point where they trailed by just one regulation basket with three minutes on the clock to run.
All of a sudden it was a dash to the finish.
The Dragons defence held firm and Tapsi forced their rivals to the free-throw line twice in succession with 22 seconds left.
Having made such a decisive impact in keeping the Dragons’ spirits high, it was left to Van Pelt to deliver the final blow.
He made no mistake with his free throws and the Dragons were through 85-78 to fight another battle.
Fighters finish third
In the third place playoff, Extra Joss Fighters outpaced MSGM 111-91.
Nilo Candidato hit 34 points to lead the Fighters offence with support from Reyson Bellesteros (14) and RJ Dela Rosa (14).
But at the other end, Hong Kwan’s 33 points coupled with Paul and Edwin’s 23 and 16 respectively only served to narrow the margin of defeat.