Gabby Velasco pins hopes on St. Benilde’s improved ceiling and heart

Nigerian import Clement Lentcheu’s entry could finally address the ceiling that College of St. Benilde has been lacking but maturity might not be on the side of the Blazers in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tourney that gets going this Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

While he’s pleased to have veteran Fons Saavedra back in the fold, St. Benilde coach Gabby Velasco admitted the Blazers, mostly composed of rookies and sophomores, still lack the experience that could haunt them against battle-tested rivals, including the San Sebastian Golden Stags, their initial foes on June 26 at The Arena in San Juan.
But that doesn’t mean the Taft-based cagers are already backing down from the tough challenge.

“We look at it this season as an opportunity for us to do our best and gain success,” Velasco, 55, told FOX Sports recently.

Aside from Lentcheu, high-flying Fil-Am Yankee Haruna will also make his debut for the Blazers, who are hoping the likes of holdovers JJ Domingo, Edward Dixon, Christian Fajarito, Gerard Castor, Rene Sta. Maria and Carlo Young could help overcome the absence of top wingman Jonathan Grey due to graduation.

“Mayroon na kaming ceiling ngayon. But we’re still young. But inspite of their inexperience, they are ready to take on the challenge,” stressed Velasco. “They have the heart. We know its gonna be hard and a struggle for us this year, but definitely itong grupo na ‘to, hindi aatras.”

Now on his fourth year, Velasco said the Blazers are eager to improve from their 5-13 win-loss showing last year and return to the Final Four round for the first time since 2002 when a previous St. Benilde squad, led by then league MVP Sunday Salvacion, even made it to the finals but lost to San Sebastian in two games.

The return of Saavedra could spell the key for St. Benilde in realizing its modest goal.

“Actually he’s only lucky because there’s a change in ruling at siya ang nag-benefit,” said Velasco of Saavedra who became eligible to play when the NCAA MannComm decided to raise the league’s age limit to 25 from 24 following the implementation of the “K to 12” program in school curriculum nationwide.

“Nakita namin na kulang kami ng someone who they can look up to. That’s why we asked Fons to come back and play for one more year. Hopefully he’ll be able to flourish on that role. Maybe he can also help us in scoring and on the defensive end. Malaki ‘yung role niya especially ngayon na panay bata ang mga kasama niya,” he added.

Velasco said he’s also expecting an improved defensive mentality from the Blazers aside from their usual high-octane offense.

“We tried to change some philosophy sa defense namin. We tried to focus more on our half court defense. But we will still run, every time, every possession. Isa pang different, offensively, we’ll look to score more inside,” he said.

Like most of his league counterparts, Velasco admitted that making the Final Four remains as the initial goal of the Blazers. But he’s not just setting his sights on that destination.

“Every year yun ang target ng team namin: make it to the Final Four. Of course, ang target pa rin is not just limited on making it to the Final Four. If our efforts would bring us somewhere higher than the Final Four, why not?” he said. – By Jerome Lagunzad

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