THE battle to draw the first blood tightens as the Philippine Patriots is up for a tough and gritty Kuala Lumpur Dragons at the start of their best-of-three semifinal duel in the 1st Asean Basketball League Sunday.

Game time is set at 4 p.m. as the Patriots vowed not to disappoint thousands of fans who will troop to the Ynares Sports Center to watch them play for flag and country.

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The RP team is coming off a blow-out victory against the Brunei Barracudas, 87-65, last January 24. Import Gabe Freeman led the charge for the Nationals via a 20-point output, nine of which are posted beyond the arc.

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Freeman was followed by fellow American Jason Dixon and Warren Ybanez with 12 and 11 points, respectively.

The win saw the Patriots improved their win-loss record to 11-4, half game ahead of Singapore Slingers (10-5) at the close of the three-month eliminations.

The Dragons meanwhile completed the Final Four cast last January 23 after surviving third-placer Satria Muda BritAma of Indonesia last January 23.

Philippine Patriots coach Louie Alas says it is important to break the defense of Kuala Lumpur Dragons for Sunday's semifinal action in the 1st Asean Basketball League. (Sunnex/Virgil B. Lopez)

A three-point shot of Loh Shee Fai sealed the win for the Malaysian squad in the final 53 seconds of the fourth quarter.

An added boost to Dragons' inclusion in the semifinal is the heavy defeat of the Barracudas on the hands of the Patriots.

Patriots coach Louie Alas believes that the Dragons, who won their last three games to edge out the Brunei Barracudas for the last playoff berth, have what it takes to challenge the favored Filipino cagers.

“I think they (KL Dragons) are the best defensive team in the league,” added Alas.

“We have to play much better basketball this time because the last four games of KL, they're playing very well because of their defense,” Alas said of the squad who defeated them last January 9 at Maba Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

On that game, the Patriots found themselves on a chasing hunt against the Dragons over the first three quarters and lost fire on the final canto as the Dragons routed the Patriots, 77-58.

Philippine Patriots co-team owner Mikee Romero meanwhile cautioned his players against taking the Dragons lightly.

“We have to take them seriously since the Dragons are on a roll,” said the CEO and president of Harbour Centre. “We have to raise our level of game several notches, especially on defense.”

But Romero is confident the Patriots can survive the challenge of the Dragons since the brilliance of the 6-foot-6 Freeman – winner of the Best Import award in the PBA last year for San Miguel – has somewhat rubbed off on other local players.

Romero cited the improved shooting of Rob Wainwright and Val Acuna and the sustained the defensive effort of Ateneo’s Nonoy Baclao, Jerwin Gaco, Elmer Espiritu, Warren Ybanez, and JP Alcaraz.

“No wonder he’s one of the most sought after imports in the PBA. He’s so talented, he can shoot, jump and defend.But more importantly, he’s a good leader. He’s a perfect partner of our other import, Jason Dixon,” said Romero.

The first of three semifinal games will have its Game 2 at the MABA stadium in Malaysia on February 3 and a rubber match is set on February 7 at the Ynares if needed.

The other semifinal match feature second-running Singapore Slingers and Satria Muda BritAma, whose billing will also commence Sunday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)