WHO says defending three-time champion San Beda is untouchable?
Letran succeeded where eight other teams failed this season as the Knights stunned the Red Lions, scoring a 65-64 cliffhanger yesterday in Game 1 of their best-of-3 finals duel for the 95th NCAA basketball tournament crown before a big crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
A Donald Tankoua basket gave San Beda a 60-56 lead at the 4:43 mark of the fourth quarter but Letran leaned on a telling 9-2 blitz capped by a Larry Muyang alley-hoop bucket off a Fran Yu assist that made it a 65-62 game with 1:28 to go.
The Lions pulled to within 64-65 on an Evan Nelle layup in the last 37.5 seconds and had a chance to steal the win but MVP Calvin Oftana missed a three-point attempt down the stretch.
Yu muffed his two free throws, only 2.4 ticks left, but Jeo Ambohot pulled down the offensive rebound that sealed the victory and sent the Knights’ faithful in frenzy.
Bonbon Batiller led Letran with a team-high 12 points, on top of five rebounds and two assists, while graduating skipper Jerrick Balanza wound up with 10 markers and four boards.
Yu also had 10 points, three caroms, and six dimes as the Knights handed San Beda its first loss of the season after an 18-game elimination round sweep and after 30 straight wins dating back to last year.
Letran eyes its first title in four years and 18th overall in Game 2 on Friday at the same venue. A deciding game, if necessary, is set next Tuesday also at the MOA Arena.
The Knights came off an 92-88 triumph over Lyceum in the stepladder semifinals last Nov. 8 while the Lions played their first game after 26 days since their 85-62 shellacking of the Pirates last Oct. 17.
Despite the big win, Letran coach Bonnie Tan insisted the series is far from over and added controlling the boards spelled the big difference.
“One game pa lang naman but we’re happy for this win; 18-0 ang San Beda and it’s a tall order to beat ang isang team na katulad nila,” said Tan.
“We were outrebounded in the first half so iyon ang in-address namin during the half time kasi we were trying to get some transition points,” he added.
The Intramuros-based Knights trailed 28-32 at the half but battled back and grabbed a 47-44 cushion going into the payoff period.
Nelle paced San Beda with a game-best 20 points, while James Canlas and Oftana had 11 apiece.