Amid unwanted conditions, Colegio de San Juan de Letran showed why it has lorded over the Grand Old League over the past three seasons.
Defending champions Letran Knights outlasted College of Saint Benilde in Game One of the NCAA Season 98 Seniors Basketball Final. And it was a battle of attrition that ended in an 81-75 triumph, Sunday at the SMART Araneta Coliseum in front of 8,284 fans.
“Before the start of the series naman, ‘pag may nagtatanong na kung ano advantage namin sa CSB, it’s more on the advantage lang din siguro na playing [in] the championship,” said fourth-year Knights head coach Bonnie Tan.
Student-athletes from both sides were hit by cramps, with the Blazers hit hardest. They missed Will Gozum, Miggy Corteza, and Robi Nayve at one point. Migs Oczon also suffered an ankle sprain just two minutes into the contest.
The Knights, on the other hand, saw Kobe Monje disqualified in the second quarter due to an unsportsmanlike foul on Macoy Marcos. Brent Paraiso then fouled out with 3:49 remaining, while Louie Sangalang cramped up.
But a crucial stretch in the final frame saw King Caralipio and Kurt Reyson providing the spark, giving the Knights a 76-69 lead with four minutes left.
“Keyword is composure, ng team and lalo na yung mga veternas natin. Despite na medyo nagkakaubusan na ng players, nilabanan yung pressure,” beamed Tan.
Benilde was still able to cut the lead down to three with 2:23 left with Gozum and Corteza coming back. But clutch free throws from Fran Yu, Rafael Go, and super senior Tommy Olivario sealed Game One for the Knights.
Sangalang, who cramped up with 2:08 left, tallied a career-high 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting with 10 rebounds.
Caralipio and Reyson got 16 and 13 points, respectively. Paraiso fired nine points, while Pao Javillonar grabbed nine boards.
Gozum, the leading MVP candidate, produced a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds while Corteza also scored 18 markers.
Mark Sangco scored 10 points from off-the-bench while Jimboy Pasturan scattered seven rebounds, five assists, and a steal.
Still, they persevered to inch closer to their third straight crown.
Game Two will take place on December 11, still at the same Quezon City venue. Prior to the game, the league will hold its individual awards ceremony, which will see the crowning of Gozum as MVP.
Letran 81 –– Sangalang 24, Caralipio 16, Reyson 13, Paraiso 9, Yu 7, Javillonar 5, Olivario 4, Santos 2, Go 1, Tolentino 0, Monje 0, Ariar 0.
Benilde 75 –– Gozum 18, Corteza 18, Sangco 10, Nayve 9, Marcos 7, Pasturan 4, Oczon 3, Cullar 2, Carlos 2, Lepalam 2, Flores 0, Sumabat 0.
Quarterscores: 25-21, 52-50, 66-67, 81-75.