MANILA, Philippines – Rhenz Abando put Letran on his back on their way to the NCAA Season 97 finals after a gutsy 77-75 win over Perpetual at the San Juan Arena on Sunday, May 8.
Abando torched the Altas with an NCAA career-high-tying 24 points on top of 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block as the defending champion Knights stayed unbeaten this season, winning all of their 10 games.
The victory, though, did not come without a scare, with No. 4 Perpetual almost forcing Letran to fish out the twice-to-beat incentive it gained for finishing the elimination round as the top seed.
Down 55-64 early in the fourth quarter, the Altas unloaded a 16-7 run capped by a Jielo Razon and-one to knot the score at 71-71 with 3:20 minutes left.
But Fran Yu – the Finals MVP in the Knights’ title run in Season 95 – took over late and went on a personal 5-2 blitz highlighted by a three-point play a minute later for a 76-73 advantage.
Jeff Egan pulled Perpetual within a whisker off a bank shot, but the Altas failed to seize the lead with Razon missing a long triple and Mark Omega getting blocked by Jeo Ambohot.
Yu then split his free throws to give Letran a two-point edge, which proved to be an enough cushion as Razon muffed a contested three-pointer at the buzzer for Perpetual.
Ambohot powered the Knights with 14 points, 14 rebounds, and 1 block, while Yu delivered 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal.
The heart-wrenching loss put an end to the Altas’ Cinderella run.
Perpetual won its last two games in the elimination round, overcame Arellano and MVP contender Justin Arana in the first stage of the play-in tournament, and stunned St. Benilde to clinch the last Final Four berth.
Razon saw his 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists go down the drain for the Altas, who missed the services of top gunner Kim Aurin anew.
Aurin also sat out their win play-in game against the Blazers due to chickenpox.
Egan had 14 points and 4 assists, while John Abis put up 11 points and 5 rebounds in the losing effort.
Letran will face the winner of the other semifinals duel between win-once Mapua and San Beda in the best-of-three finals starting on May 17.
Letran 77 – Abando 24, Ambohot 14, Yu 13, Paraiso 7, Sangalang 7, Olivario 5, Javillonar 4, Reyson 2, Mina 1, Caralipio 0, Fajarito 0.
Perpetual 75 – Razon 21, Egan 14, Abis 11, Pagaran 8, Omega 7, Boral 6, Barcuma 4, Cuevas 4, Martel 0, Kawamura 0, Sevilla 0.
Quarters: 20-17, 36-39, 62-55, 77-75.