The Letran Knights drew first blood in the NCAA Season 95 finals with a thrilling 65-64 win over rival San Beda, finally putting a stain in the Red Lions' previously unbeaten run Tuesday at SM Mall of Asia Arena.
The Letran veterans took charge with Bonbon Batiller leading the way with 12 points. Jerrick Balanza and Fran Yu added 10 points apiece.
"It's just one game but we're happy for that win," said coach Bonnie Tan. "Especially they're 18-0. It's a tall order to beat a team like that."
The Knights continued their impressive postseason run as they executed down the stretch against the three-time defending champions. Larry Muyang connected on an alley-oop pass from Yu to push the Knights to a 65-62 with a 1:28 remaining. On the other end, the Knights were able to hold their ground in the waning moments against San Beda's offense even when Evan Nelle scored the Red Lions' final bucket with 37.5 seconds left, to cut his team's deficit to a single point, 65-64.
Letran's killing blow didn't come from a gutsy basket but instead from its rock-solid defense. When Jeo Ambohot failed to knock down a basket that would have been the dagger, the Knights went to work on defense, hounding the Red Lions in the next possession. League MVP Calvin Oftana rushed his shot and missed while Yu was able to corral the crucial rebound with 2.4 seconds remaining. Yu missed his two foul shots but the Knights got the rebound and sealed the win.
"We were outrebounded during the first half so that was what we addressed during halftime because we were trying to get transition points," Tan said in Filipino. "I told my players that if we cannot get those rebounds, we cannot run. So they adjusted in the second half. That's when they boxed out. Luckily, we got some loose balls.That's the time when we can run the offense that we like."
The Knights were outrebounded by five, 46-51, against the Red Lions but made up in other areas. They held their opponent to just 30 percent shooting, including 6-for-40 from beyond the arc.
Nelle led San Beda with 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. Unfortunately, the sophomore's passing game was sorely missed by his squad. Nelle only dished out one assist and the Red Lions had just 10 assists, nine short of their season average. James Canlas and Oftana had 11 points apiece.
Game 2 between the Knights and the Red Lions is set this Friday at the MOA Arena.
In the Juniors Division, the San Beda Red Cubs claimed Game 1 with a 94-80 win over the Lyceum Junior Pirates. Five players finished in double-figures with Tony Ynot and Justin Sanchez notching 16 points apiece. San Beda's control of the boards was the difference as it established a 64-35 rebounding edge. Juniors MVP John Barba had 21 points for Lyceum in the loss. San Beda high school aims to finish the series in Game 2 and win its first title since 2015.
LETRAN 65 -- Batiller 12, Balanza 10, Yu 10, Ambohot 9, Muyang 7, Reyson 7, Mina 3, Ular 3, Caralipio 2, Sangalang 2, Balagasay 0, Olivario 0.
SAN BEDA 64 -- Nelle 20, Canlas 11, Oftana 11, Tankoua 7, Soberano 6, Bahio 4, Doliguez 3, Etrata 2, Abuda 0, Cuntapay 0, Alfaro 0. Quarters:
17-18, 28-32, 47-44, 65-64.
- This is San Beda's first loss since August 21, 2018. The Red Lions were riding a 32-game winning streak dating back to last season.
- Some notable names who watched Game 1 were ex-Knights Kevin Alas, Rey Nambatac, Bong Quinto, JP Calvo, and Kerby Raymundo, former Letran coaches Jeff Napa and Louie Alas, Letran Special Assistant to the Rector for Sports Development Alfrancis Chua, NorthPort head coach Pido Jarenco, Columbian Dyip Governor Bobby Rosales, NorthPort Governor Erick Arejola, and Magnolia Governor Rene Pardo. There were also former Red Lions coach Jamike Jarin and former Red Lions Borgie Hermida and Baser Amer.