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‘There are a lot of things we couldn’t put on in a month’s practice.’

LOUIE Sangalang wants to win the crown to fortify Letran College’s hold of the NCAA throne. | Photograph by Rio Deluvio for the daily tribune

A rising power in College of Saint Benilde will try to knock the crown off Letran College’s head when they collide in Game 1 of their Season 98 National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament best-of-three series today at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Game time is at 3 p.m. with the Blazers looking to stop the Knights from claiming their third straight title while installing themselves as the new kings of the oldest collegiate league.

Hunger will definitely be a factor in this series that is tipped to go down the wire.

The Blazers, for one, have yet to taste the sweetness of an NCAA title since 2000 when future Philippine Basketball Association standouts Sunday Salvacion and Jondan Salvador powered them past San Sebastian in a dramatic finals encounter.

The Blazers advanced to the finals two years later, but couldn’t get the job done as the Stags, who were bannered by Leo Najorda, Christian Coronel and Mark Macapagal, asserted their mastery.

This year, the Blazers have another chance.

They finished the eliminations on top with an impressive 14-4 win-loss mark while brandishing the league’s most explosive offense focused on Most Valuable Player frontrunner Will Gozum, JC Cullar, Migs Oczon, Miggy Corteza and Jimboy Pasturan.

In the Final Four, they displayed mental toughness in claiming the scalp of an old warrior — San Beda University — in an impressive fashion, 62-61, to prove that they are ripe, mature and very hungry to win their second title since jumping into the league from the National Capital Region Athletic Association in 1998.

Saint Benilde coach Charles Tiu bared that their long preparation truly helped them in rising into serious contenders.

“There are a lot of things we couldn’t put on in a month’s practice. We improved offensively and defensively and we’re the No. 1 offensive team in the league,” said Tiu, who was just 13 years old the last time the Blazers won the crown.

“That’s one of the keys, instead of focusing on short cutting through everything because we had one month to prepare (in Season 97), I stuck to what we believed in and it kinda worked out.”
But winning the crown will not be easy.

Handled by a veteran tactician in Bonnie Tan, Letran is considered as the gold standard in collegiate basketball for having the passion, the discipline, the consistency and the will to emerge victorious.

In fact, Tan is implementing a defensive scheme that has been a nightmare for opposing teams, holding them to a meager 70.7 points and 37.3 rebounds per game.

The seasoned Knights also conducted a masterclass when they battled the Blazers in the eliminations as they clawed a pair of convincing wins — 81-75 on 23 September and 74-66 on 5 November — to send a strong message that snatching the crown away from them will not be easy.

“Our objective in the finals against the No. 1 team in scoring is to focus more on our defensive stops. The purpose is to minimize the score and control their scoring strengths,” said Tan, who will bank on the tough, in-your-face defensive stance of Fran Yu, Brent Paraiso, Louie Sangalang, Kurt Reyson, King Caralipio and Tommy Olivario.

“All the trust and confidence we have for the players are still there. They brought us here in the finals and they will be the ones who will help us win the series.”

“After all, we have been in crucial games before and this team has been to a lot of wars together.”

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