Letran looked to blow out the Emilio Aguinaldo College Generals early in the first quarter as they raced to 22-6 lead after 6:40 played. Yet these Generals, not exactly the most talented but tough hombres, came charging back.
The problem with spotting another team a huge lead is when you rally, you exert a lot of effort that sometimes leaves you gassed. The San Sebastian Golden Stags-Lyceum Pirates match that took place right before was just like that. The latter ran up a huge lead that they nursed all the way to the fourth period, the Stags found some toughness within them and actually led by seven before descending into a maze of errors that did them in.
It was the same thing for EAC except they never led. Letran didn’t fold as McJour Luib and Mark Cruz led the Knights into the homEstretch for an 86-76 win to go up to 9-2.
I didn’t rate Letran too highly heading into the NCAA season because I thought they struggled in the pre-season and didn’t look anywhere within the vicinity of fluidity that we see them now as they run their offense.
So how did Letran get to where they are at?
The head coach
You have to start with the first year head coach Aldin Ayo and his assistants led by Louie Gonzales. Ayo played for Louie Alas who is a very good coach so he learned from one of the best. Alas’ Knights, that featured Kerby Raymundo, Chris Calaguio, Jason Misolas, Billy Moody, Allan Salangsang, and Ayo to name a few won a title in 1998. So Ayo knows what it takes to win.
His cool and calm demeanor helps these Knights play in a more controlled manner. The physical and punishing defense that was a trademark under Alas isn’t there. Instead it’s a more clinical full court press that chokes the life out of opponents.
Moving McJour Luib into the starting line-up
Luib was a solid player for the Squires before moving up to the seniors division. When the Knights started Kevin Alas with Mark Cruz as the backup, Luib was the third option. Sometimes fourth as Franz Dysam was still playing. Starting for the Knights this year while moving Cruz into a sixth man role was a masterstroke.
For one, it gave Luib confidence and he’s been magnificent running the one-spot. Plus, he’s a two-way player. Second, it gave the bench some scoring power.
Rey Nambatac’s ascendancy.
Well, Rey Nambatac is a veteran now. And he is a lot deadlier. He’s like a smaller version of Kevin Racal who attacks the basket on drives or offensive putbacks or rebounds. Nambatac didn’t have a great shooting day against EAC even if he finished with 11 points. He did haul down 10 boards. Prior to Mark Cruz’ 29-point binge versus EAC, Nambatac has been the breakout star for Letran this season while averaging 16.6 points per outing (he fell to second behind Cruz in percentage points after the win over the Generals). Better to have more weapons heading into the Final Four chase, right?
The maturation of several role players
When Bong Quinto joined the squad, I thought that he was going to be another Andrei Mendoza, a bruising enforcer who lived to fight. This season, save for a few boneheaded players, he’s become a little more complete as a player. He scores, posts up, rebounds, plays sound defense, and makes nifty assists. He plays the three or the four and can finish the break.
Felix Apreku’s finally showing off some skills. Last year all he could do was rebounds but in a reckless manner. He was athletic sure, but he was uncoordinated. He shows signs of that unpolished skill but he is playing better and has become an integral part of Ayo’s rotation. He hit the first two baskets against EAC today — the first an exquisite reverse layup off an offensive rebound and the second a bank shot after Jom Sollano found him wide open on the side.
The key pick up of Jom Sollano.
Very undersized center at 6’4”. But he is sound defensively. Has a decent mid-range shot and the active sort around the basket. The downside is when he goes up against taller centers, he always finds himself in foul trouble. He averages 3.11 fouls per game, most on Letran.
So that begs the question, do they have what it takes to go all the way and even beat San Beda?
Beating San Beda in the elimination round means nothing. The Red Lions are weaker now than at any point in their recent era of dominance. They are still prohibitive favorites to annex a sixth straight title. Letran needs every advantage it can get — twice-to-beat in the Final Four, and should they make it to the Big Dance, take Game One. It is difficult to beat San Beda when the going gets tough and when Ola Adeogun decides he wants to play basketball instead of coasting.
Ayo and company have to be concerned about their defense as they are in the middle of the pack in all defensive statistics save for turnovers in which they force the most in the league. That is a result of their full court press though. But it is hard to sustain that kind of game for 40 minutes. Nevertheless, they need to improve on that aspect. After all, it is defense that wins championships.
Furthermore, Letran will need to have all cylinders firing and it cannot be one or two people. And they need to call an All Points Bulletin for Rey Publico who has gone missing (it doesn’t look good when newcomer Christian Balagsay is playing more minutes and matches than him). For now, their goal is the Final Four and any of the top two seeds.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.