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Knights near 3-peat

Seasoned Letran College delivered a masterclass on how to compete at the big stage when it pulled off an 81-75 victory over College of Saint Benilde in Game 1 of their Season 98 National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament best-of-three series yesterday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Louie Sangalang bullied his way down low while King Caralipio and Kurt Reyson chipped in significant numbers for the Knights, who moved one win away from winning their third straight title in the country’s oldest collegiate league.

With momentum on its side, Letran is tipped to clinch the crown when it marches to Game 2 next Sunday at the same Cubao venue.

Sangalang pumped in 24 points on a red-hot 10-of-11 field goal shooting on top of 10 rebounds while Caralipio and Reyson added 16 and 13 points, respectively, for Letran, which displayed an impressive late-game composure that is only seen on a team overflowing with championship experience.

The Knights were so calm, so composed and so fluid that they were able to turn a slim 76-73 lead into an 81-75 deficit in the crucial stretch, thanks to the 5-2 blast capped by a pair of free throws by Tommy Olivario in the final 5.8 seconds.

True enough, Letran coach Bonnie Tan credited their Game 1 success to their vast championship experience, an advantage that the Blazers couldn’t match since they are making their first finals appearance in two decades.

“The key word here is composure,” said Tan, a veteran of many amateur basketball wars while handling professional players as team manager of NorthPort in the Philippine Basketball Association.

Tan’s counterpart, meanwhile, is Saint Benilde mentor Charles Tiu, who is already making a lot of heads turn with his offensive strategy, motivational skills and leadership despite being one of the country’s youngest mentors at 33 years old.

“Even with players falling down left and right, they fought against pressure.”

Tan added that his players knew that their finals experience in the past two seasons will serve as their weapon that they can draw when the going gets tough.

“Even before the start of the series, we always say that our championship experience has been our biggest advantage,” Tan said.

“We always remind our veterans to use that experience to our advantage.”

Will Gozum, the leading candidate for the Most Valuable Player award, had a double-double game of 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Blazers, who have to all out in Game 2 if they want to force a do-or-die game on 18 December.

The scores:
LETRAN (81) — Sangalang 24, Caralipio 16, Reyson 13, Paraiso 9, Yu 7, Javillonar 5, Olivario 4, Santos 2, Go 1, Tolentino 0, Monje 0, Ariar 0.
SAINT BENILDE (75) — Gozum 18, Corteza 18, Sangco 10, Nayve 9, Marcos 7, Pasturan 4, Oczon 3, Cullar 2, Carlos 2, Lepalam 2, Flores 0, Sumabat 0.
QUARTERS: 25-21, 52-50, 66-67, 81-75.

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