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Yuetai to face Extra Joss in CBL finals

Jose Rodriguez T. Senase / Khmer Times Share:
The Yuetai Mekongers, which feature many Cambodian national team players, knocked out title-favourite ABA Dragons in the semis. KT/Yuen Punlue

The Extra Joss Fighters are preparing to face the Yuetai Mekongers in the finals of the Cambodia Basketball League (CBL).

The Mekongers were the first to advance to the championship round of Cambodia’s top basketball league after an upset semis victory over the ABA Dragons.

The Mekongers escaped with a 77-75 win in Game 1, before smashing the Dragons, 102-71, in Game 2 of the best-of-three series. One of the favourites to win the CBL title before the 2020 season started, the Dragons could not find a way to stop the Mekongers and stumbled after a promising start.

“Our team played poorly from start to finish,” lamented playing coach Colin Hodgkins shortly after his team was eliminated.

The finals will feature a single knockout game on Jan 24.

The Mekongers versus Fighters championship game will start at 3pm. The Dragons and Master Tapsi will battle it out for third place starting 1pm. The Cambodia Basketball Federation will also announce the top five players and the season MVP during the same occasion.

The Fighters had a more difficult path to the finals, with the team going through a do-or-die game before finally knocking out Master Tapsi.

This will be the fourth consecutive finals appearance for the Fighters. The Fighters beat Beyond to win the CBL title in 2019.

To the surprise of many basketball observers, Master Tapsi managed to eke out a 76-74 win in Game 1. The Fighters won Game 2, 80-79, leading to a do-or-die Game 3 on Wednesday at the National Sports Training Center gym in Phnom Penh.

Game 3 started well for the underdogs. Master Tapsi did not make it to the top three at the end of the elimination round, while the Fighters occupied the top spot for most of the season.

But Master Tapsi appeared to have turned the corner in the playoffs.

Led by veterans Fredjie Portades and Janno Cunanan, Master Tapsi immediately jumped into the lead early in the game. The first quarter ended with Master Tapsi ahead, 19-16.

The Fighters fought back and outscored Master Tapsi, 17-15, in the second canto to come within a single point at the end of the period. The Fighters managed to contain Portades, Cunanan and company, while shooting guard Nilo Candidato terrorised Master Tapsi with an array of jumpers, transition baskets and running shots.

The first half ended with Master Tapsi clinging to a one-point advantage, 34-33. The first half was a grinding slugfest, with the two sides combining for a measly 67 points.

Master Tapsi appeared to have recovered after the half-time break.

Portades, Cunanan, centre Harold Bemtgen and power forward Jayson Mercado worked together to increase the Master Tapsi lead midway through the period. A series of defensive miscues by the Fighters allowed Master Tapsi to slowly pull away.

With two minutes remaining in the third period, Master Tapsi built an eight-point advantage and threatened to run away with the win. But the Fighters, which have been tipped to repeat this year, held their ground and mounted an 8-0 run after that to tie the game once again. The two sides were tied, 53-53, heading into the fourth and final quarter.

“We were down by eight points with two minutes remaining in the third period. Fortunately, we found our rhythm again after that,” Fighters assistant coach Sander David said.

With their backs against the wall and facing the prospect of not making it to the CBL finals for the first time since 2016, the battle-tested Fighters finally summoned the strength and experience to stop their rampaging opponents.

Tired from constantly battling their much-taller opponents inside, Master Tapsi resorted to outside shooting, but missed a good percentage of their shoots from downtown and from the perimeter.

“Our team played very good defence in the fourth quarter. Master Tapsi tried to win the game from the outside, but fortunately for us, they did not succeed,” David pointed out.

The Fighters outscored Master Tapsi, 27-18, in the final period to hack out an 80-71 win at the final buzzer.

Candidato scored a game-high 36 points for the Fighters. Cunanan spearheaded Master Tapsi with his 21 markers, most of them coming in the first half.

David and centre Kelechi (KC) Njoku did a splendid job of manning the paint and limiting Master Tapsi’s forays inside.

David said they need to do a better job against Yuetai, a team that features many national team players.

Yuetai superstars Chin SoPhara, Ollie Morton and William Reber are among the toughest players to stop in the league, with opposing teams struggling to guard the fast, efficient and sharp-shooting trio.

“Yuetai is a young, well prepared team. They practice regularly and their players have the potential to bring glory to Cambodia on the international level. The finals will be played on their home court and they really want to win the championship,” he said.

David said he expects a tight, down-the-wire finish.

“It will be another tough game for us. But we are also very motivated to win back-to-back titles in the CBL. We will try to play our best and to give them ‘a hell of a fight’. The championship will not be decided until the final buzzer,” he stressed.

The 2020 season of the CBL will now conclude this weekend after being delayed  repeatedly by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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