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Defense keys Letran title run

Ranged against a hungry, hot-shooting team, Letran College pulled out its biggest weapon in its arsenal to complete a rare three peat in the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament late Sunday at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.

Knights coach Bonnie Tan said they relied on their tough, in-your-face defense to silence the Blazers and eke out an 81-67 victory in Game 3 of their Season 98 best-of-three finals showdown.

Tan, a seasoned tactician who is also the team manager of NorthPort in the Philippine Basketball Association, said they have to revise their game plan following the suspension of captain Fran Yu in the sudden-death duel.

Without Yu, the heart and soul of the Knights on both ends, the Blazers threatened to steal the game and essay a fitting ending to their 22-year title drought.

Then, the Knights relied on their tough defense to contain the Blazers, holding them to only 12 points in the second quarter to dictate the tempo the rest of the way.

“We focused more on our rotation. That’s what we have been discussing the entire game,” said Tan, who instructed the Knights to display a brand of defense last seen during their glory years under former coach Louie Alas.

“Defense wins championships. We told them to stick to the game plan and we will definitely win.”

True enough, the absence of Yu led to the rise of new heroes for Letran.

Veteran Bren Paraiso was impressive while Louie Sangalang, Tommy Olivario, Pao Javillonar and Kurt Reyson had their shining moments as they asserted their presence against a Benilde squad that couldn’t find an answer to their airtight man-to-man defense.

The defense was so suffocating, so annoying that newly-crowned Most Valuable Player Will Gozum lost it and planted an elbow at the back of Brent Paraiso’s head in the final 1:44.

The foul-plagued Gozum had a nightmarish and distracted performance, tallying only 10 points on 4-of-6 field goal shooting and two rebounds before getting ejected while Migs Oczon had a sour shooting after converting only two shots in 13 attempts for nine points and seven rebounds, far from his 15-point production during their 76-71 victory in Game 2.

Still, the limelight belonged to King Caralipio.

Caralipio dropped 20 points on a sizzling 7-of-10 shooting from the field with 10 rebounds to emerge as Most Valuable Player of the finals while leading the Knights to their 20th overall title and second crown in the same year.

When the smoke cleared, Caralipio ran out of words to describe what he feels.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m just blessed that we got the championship,” Caralipio said.

For a job well done, Letran’s chief backer – San Miguel Corporation’s Petron – rewarded the players with a trip to Japan on top of a hefty bonus, according to Special Assistant to the Rector for Sports Development Alfrancis Chua.

But Chua couldn’t directly say what the future holds for the Knights and SMC.

“They’ll go to Japan and a bonus from Petron from Boss RSA (SMC president Ramon Ang) that will make the boys happy,” Chua said.

“We have to hold a meeting first before we plan anything.”

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