MANILA, Philippines – Colegio de San Juan de Letran head coach Jeff Napa will not deny that his first season in Intramuros was a truly frustrating one for him, as the defending champions Knights sputtered out of Final Four contention amid inconsistent and, at times, lackluster play.
The Knights managed to end the NCAA Season 92 tournament on a winning note, edging Emilio Aguinaldo College (EAC), 91-87, in overtime but not before squandering a five-point advantage in the final ten seconds of regulation.
"Sa season as whole, frustrated ako siyempre," Napa said bluntly after the game, which saw him bench star guard Rey Nambatac and veteran McJour Luib in overtime, in favor of the more aggressive Jerrick Balanza and the steady JP Calvo.
"Pero 'yung frustration ko ngayon, gagamitin ko para sa next year," he added. "Para at least, kung sino man ang magiging player ko next year will become ready and prepared."
"'Yun ang pinaka-sigurado ako talaga," he stressed, "na babalik kami ng mas malakas. At least, 'yung expectation ko, talagang makukuha ko 'yung expectation ko sa gusto kong mangyari."
Napa took over a Letran squad coming off its first NCAA championship in a decade. Although they no longer had veterans Mark Cruz and Kevin Racal, the Knights still had a talented core bannered by Nambatac and Jom Sollano, and were thought to be contenders for the Final Four.
At first it seemed the Knights would live up to expectations. They started the season with a 5-2 record, including an impressive win over Arellano University. But a five-game slide in the middle of the tournament dealt a huge blow to their Final Four hopes, and a loss to Mapua Institute of Technology in their penultimate game of the elimination round ended their title defense.
"It's still my fault, kung ano man ang nangyari this season," said Napa. "I take full responsibility. Pero next year, I'll take full responsibility na rin, na I'm pretty sure na babalik kami ng mas malakas."
Napa, who is in his first year as a college coach after a successful stint with National University Bullpups, said it has been a long and, at times, painful learning experience for him, but one that has prepared him for Season 93.
"Siguro, mas kailangan ko pang maging firm, kasi medyo mature enough na 'yung mga hawak ko ngayon," said Napa when asked of the lessons that he learned.
"At least, next year will be a different story. Kumbaga, it's a mix of old ones and young ones. So kung sino ang bumigay, maiwan sila sa bus, ganoon lang 'yun," he added.
Letran will lose veterans Luib, Sollano, Felix Apreku, and the seldom used Chris dela Pena, although the high-scoring Nambatac, and the promising trio of JP Calvo, Jerrick Balanza, and Bong Quinto are all expected to return.
"Iba rin 'yung line-up next year," said Napa. "Hindi ko alam kung sino ang magiging line-up. Tryout muna sila lahat. No one is safe. Ganoon naman lagi ako eh, all throughout. Ang importante sa akin, 'yung magpapakamatay para sa eskwelahan."
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