By Leobert Julian A. de la Peña
The Pampanga Giant Lanterns showed resiliency and the will to win after shocking the San Juan Knights via come-from-behind fashion, 82-76, to punch a ticket to the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) grand finals last November 14, 2023.
With the hard-earned victory, the Giant Lanterns just continued its undefeated MPBL streak while also being hailed as the kings of the North Division.
Pampanga had to survive a hot-shooting San Juan squad that built a 17-point cushion in the first half, 12-29.
The star-studded team headed by Governor Delta Pineda who also acts as their head coach was just too clumsy with the ball, giving up tons of turnovers that turned into freebies for the Knights during that run.
Aside from their efficient offense, San Juan also contained Pampanga’s strength in the perimeter when they deployed a zone defense, forcing the Giant Lanterns to shoot the three-pointers every offensive possession.
Just when San Juan thought they could carry their momentum until the fourth quarter, the Giant Lanterns flipped the switch just in time and got a stellar outing from former PBA guard Encho Serrano.
Serrano energized Pampanga with his hot start on the offensive end and made up for Justine Baltazar’s dismal shooting from the field.
What was once a double-digit lead quickly evaporated after Serrano’s scoring clinic that forced San Juan to call early timeouts to try to address their defensive lapses.
It was then all Pampanga after Allen Liwag finally gave the Giant Lanterns a taste of the lead, 73-71, with only 3:03 remaining in the game.
Former National University (NU) Bulldogs top scorer John Lloyd Clemente also balled out for Pampanga after drilling the two most important treys in the final five minutes of the game.
MJ Garcia and Serrano led the Giant Lanterns in scoring after combining for 32 markers, nine rebounds, and nine assists.
Meanwhile, Marwin Taywan delivered 18 points and two assists for the former MPBL kings but were just not enough to contain the firepower of the Giant Lanterns.