Defending champion Letran played true to its form against top title contender Arellano U on Thursday night and coach Jeff Napa couldn’t help but be impressed.
“Talagang lumalabas na ‘yung tunay na Letran na nag-champion,” he said moments after the Knights sent the Chiefs crashing back to earth behind a solid 89-79 victory—their third straight—in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tournament at The Arena in San Juan.
Top gunner Rey Nambatac and skipper McJour Luib made big plays down the stretch while undersized center Felix Apreku provided the game-long hustle and energy as Letran gave prized playmaker Jiovani Jalalon and erstwhile unscathed Arellano U a perfect dose of its own medicine.
Nambatac sizzled with a game-high 22 points on top of five rebounds, three steals and as many assists while Luib dished out his best offensive performance yet with 17 markers, spiked by four triples, with the two also alternating in putting the clamps down on Jalalon, their fellow Cagayan de Oro native, in the final frame.
“Give credit to the boys talaga. In-execute nila ‘yung game plan namin especially on defense,” said Napa, clearly pleased with how the Knights outplayed the Chiefs during their 18-8 closeout in the last six minutes.
“‘Yun ang hinahanap ko talaga so ito ‘yung pinakamagandang nilaro namin so far,” he added as the Knights improved to 3-1, good for solo third. The Chiefs absorbed their first setback after two wins, leaving Mapua (3-0) and host San Beda (3-0) as the still undefeated teams yet.
The 5-foot-10 Jalalon, as expected, led the Chiefs anew with 17 points but struggled from the field, making just six of their 20 attempts from the field, no thanks to the Knights’ sustained defensive pressure led by Nambatac and Luib.
Fil-Canadian gunner Zach Nichols chiefly backstopped Jalalon offensively with 15 markers, built around five triples, the last two of them pulling Arellano U within 69-71 with 5:43 left to play.
But Letran refused to wilt under pressure, with Luib’s corner triple highlighting seven unanswered points that enabled them to restore order and force Arellano U coach Jerry Codiñera to sue for time with less than three minutes remaining.
A putback by Lervin Flores snapped the Chiefs’ drought but that proved to be just that as Nambatac and Luib teamed up anew wit fellow veterans Jerrick Balanza and Jom Sollano in another telling run that virtually sealed the deal foe the Knights.
“Naku-kumbinse ko na ang mga ito na talagang ito ‘yung gusto kong mangyari. At least sumusunod na sila, true soldiers na,” said Napa.
“Although may mga mistakes, given naman ‘yun na magkakamali at magkakamali ang mga bata pero ‘yung commitment nila on our system at sa samahan nila, ‘yun ang pinaka-magandang nangyayari talaga,” he concluded. – By Jerome Lagunzad
LETRAN (89) – Nambatac 22, Luib 17, Balanza 12, Calvo 11, Quinto 10, Sollano 9, Apreku 5, Ambohot 2, Sario 1, Dela Pena 0.
ARELLANO U (79) – Jalalon 17, Nichols 15, Flores 10, Enriquez 9, Meca 8, Gumaru 4, Cadavis 4, Holts 3, Aguilar 3, Salado 2, Villoria 2, Canete 2, Gupilan 0.
Quarterscores: 24-21, 42-36, 62-61, 89-79.