MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATED) The Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights are on the brink of a second consecutive NCAA championship after a come-from-behind 68-63 triumph against the Mapua Cardinals on Sunday at the FilOil Flying V Centre in San Juan.
The Knights weathered a brutal shooting performance from long distance to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 Finals series. They also improved to 11-0 in the NCAA Season 97 men's basketball tournament.
Brent Paraiso and Louie Sangalang led the way for Letran with 14 points each, while Rhenz Abando had 13 points and seven rebounds in less than 20 minutes before suffering an ankle injury in the third quarter.
For most of the game, it appeared that Mapua was on its way to hand Letran its first loss of the season. The Cardinals led by as much as 10 points, and were still ahead by four, 62-58, with 3:21 to go after Adrian Nocum drilled a cold-blooded three-pointer.
It turned out to be Mapua's last field goal of the game. Fran Yu, the reigning Finals MVP, orchestrated a 9-0 run to put the Knights in control while the Cardinals' defense fell apart in the closing stretch, and their execution on offense sputtered.
A Yu jumper made it a one-point game, 62-61, with 66 seconds to go, and Mapua gave the Knights a lifeline when Brian Lacap misfired badly on a three-pointer. In the next possession, Letran went to Jeo Ambohot who drove to the hoop for the go-ahead layup that made it 63-62 with just 45.3 ticks left.
After a missed chance by Mapua, Sangalang made one of two free throws but the Knights were able to retain possession. Yu fed Paraiso for a layup, giving them a 66-62 lead with just 15 seconds left.
A split at the line by King Caralipio pushed their lead to five, but the Knights gave Mapua some measure of hope when they fouled Lacap on a three-pointer. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Lacap could only make one of two charities.
"Hindi nag-give up mga players namin kahit na wala si Rhenz Abando," said Letran coach Bonnie Tan.
Abando had to be helped off the court after an awkward fall with 3:20 left in the third quarter. The MVP candidate had completed a slam dunk to put Letran with two points, 47-45, but twisted his left ankle upon landing.
"We have to keep on improving. Kapag close game, breaks of the game iyon. Either team can win, kung sino ang may gusto," Tan said of their mindset for Game 2.
The Knights won the game despite shooting just 33.3% from the field, and missing all 15 of their three-point attempts. They had a 50-41 advantage on the boards, however, and translated Mapua's 20 turnovers to 18 points.
Letran, which won the NCAA Season 95 crown in a classic against rivals San Beda, swept the elimination round before holding off Perpetual Help in the Final 4 to advance to the championship series. The Cardinals set up the Battle of Intramuros in the NCAA Finals after outlasting the Red Lions in their own Final 4 match-up.
Warren Bonifacio and Arvin Gamboa led the Cardinals with 10 points each. Mapua played without Jasper Salenga for most of the game after he was ejected with under two minutes left in the first quarter for two unsportsmanlike fouls.
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.
Quarterscores: 15-24, 32-39, 49-54, 68-63