MANILA, Philippines – The Letran Knights gained a much-needed head start in their NCAA Season 97 title defense after stunning the Mapua Cardinals with a 68-63 Game 1 escape act at the FilOil Flying V Centre in San Juan City on Sunday, May 15.
Off a 58-62 deficit with less than two minutes left, the defending NCAA champions dug deep to complete a pivotal 8-0 turnaround in the clutch, highlighted by a go-ahead Jeo Ambohot short stab with 43.5 ticks left, 63-62, and capped with a Brent Paraiso dagger layup off a Fran Yu dish with 15.5 seconds left for a 66-62 gap.
Paraiso, a former UST role player, starred in the finals opener heist with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, while big man Louie Sangalang also scored 14 to go with 7 boards, and 2 blocks.
Rhenz Abando, one of the league’s leading MVP candidates, added 13 points and 7 rebounds in just under 20 minutes of play, as his run was cut short with a scary-looking left foot injury following a highlight putback jam to inch within 45-47 at the 3:20 mark of the third quarter.
Yu, the reigning Finals MVP from Season 95 three years ago, stuffed the stat sheet as well with 6 points, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 2 boards in just 23 minutes.
“We have to keep on improving. If it’s a close game, it will come down to breaks of the game. Either team can win or the one who wants it more,” said Letran head coach Bonnie Tan in Filipino. “Our players didn’t give up even without Rhenz.”
Big man Warren Bonifacio paced the heartbreaking collapse with a big 10-point, 14-rebound double-double, while Paolo Hernandez was held scoreless in the second half after having 8 points in the first two periods.
Mapua will now have an agonizingly long wait to exact revenge as Game 2 tips off next Sunday, May 22, still at the FilOil Arena. Meanwhile, Abando’s status for that game remains in doubt.
Letran 68 – Paraiso 14, Sangalang 14, Abando 13, Yu 6, Ambohot 6, Reyson 6, Javillonar 4, Caralipio 3, Mina 2, Olivario 0, Fajarito 0.
Mapua 63 – Bonifacio 10, Gamboa 10, Agustin 9, Hernandez 8, Lacap 7, Nocum 6, Mercado 5, Pido 5, Garcia 3, Salenga 0.
Quarters: 15-24, 32-39, 49-54, 68-63.