10 months after, Knights back as champs

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    CHAMPS: Letran players, officials and supporters whoop it up.
    CHAMPS: Letran players, officials and supporters whoop it up.

    WHAT a difference 10 months made.

    Letran coach Bonnie Tan took over from Jeff Napa last January, given the task of leading the Knights to the Promised Land after four years.

    Tan succeeded where Napa failed as Letran completed its improbable upset of favorite San Beda University in the 95th NCAA basketball tournament finals last Tuesday.

    “Honestly, noong first time ko nag-practice sa kanila (Knights), I told them ‘This is the best and pinaka-talented na nahawakan ko na team sa college basketball,’” Tan recalled.

    “Nothing against my former players, but very matured na sila (Knights) at nakikita ko na malayo ang mararating ng players,” he added.

    The Knights ended the Red Lions’ three-year reign, pulling off a dramatic 81-79 victory in the deciding game of the best-of-3 titular showdown to bag their first crown since 2015 and 18th overall.

    Tan said Letran’s painful 76-79 loss in Game 2 last Nov. 15 galvanized the squad.

    “After we lost Game 2, usually kasi may mga teams na medyo sumasabog na kaagad,” offered Tan. “Nakita ko ang maturity ng mga players when we went back sa drawing board sa practice namin, instead of malungkot and magkagulo sila and sisihan ay nagtatawanan pa sila.”

    The Intramuros-based squad wound up with a 12-6 record after the elimination round to emerge as the No. 3 seed and beat San Sebastian College and fancied Lyceum in the stepladder semifinals.

    Letran nipped San Beda 65-64 in the series opener last Nov. 12 that ended the Lions’ 32-game winning streak dating back to last season.

    Playing in sudden death in front of 19,876 fans, the Knights proved they wanted it more.

    “Nandoon ang composure nila, nandoon ang camaraderie. Mas naging buo noong pagkatalo sa Game 2. Sa ganoong klase na nakikita ko sa team, sa players ko, naniniwala ako na may chance manalo ngayon sa third game,” offered Tan, who serves as team manager of NorthPort in the pro league and also had a stint coaching the Pirates.

    “Ang usapan naming, no regrets, whatever result, as long as we work for everything we have to work. Bahala na si Lord.”

    Six-foot-2 Jerrick Balanza led Letran with a game-high 27 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists in his swan song. Balanza, who went under the knife to remove a brain tumor late last year, began and finished his NCAA career with a ring.