If winning a National Collegiate Athletic Association crown is tough, what more if you have to do it twice in one year.
Letran College successfully accomplished the feat.
Ranged against a pair of young and hungry foes, the Knights displayed tremendous grace under pressure to reign supreme in Seasons 97 and 98 of the men’s basketball tournament.
First, they beat the well-oiled Mapua University squad for the Season 97 crown in May before clobbering the hot-shooting College of Saint Benilde in December for the Season 98 title without prized swingman Rhenz Abando.
Knights coach Bonnie Tan admitted that the feat wasn’t easy, especially since all of them were still adjusting after two years of pandemic.
“It’s hard playing after two years of pandemic. I don’t know if it makes it sweeter, but it’s definitely harder than my first season with the team,” said Tan, also the team manager of NorthPort in the Philippine Basketball Association.
“This was hard because we were not used to being the favorites. We always liked being the underdogs.”
While Fran Yu, Jeo Ambohot, Allen Mina, Pao Javillonar and Louie Sangalang stuck around for Season 97, it was the arrival of Abando from University of Santo Tomas that made the Knights an unstoppable force.
Despite coming off the bench, Abando still averaged 15.73 points, 6.36 rebounds, 1.73 assists, and 1.27 blocks in the eliminations and even became the league’s first player to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in a single season since Allwell Oraeme of Nigeria did the trick for Mapua in 2015.
Letran swept Season 97 by winning all 12 games from opening day until Game 2 of the finals against the Cardinals last 22 May for back-to-back titles, a first for the Knights since 1999.
This was a special moment for Abando, who also bagged the Mythical Team award, as this was his first collegiate championship in his career.
“I’m so happy because I wasn’t able to get this back in my previous school. This is my first championship in college,” said Abando, who was offered a slot in Gilas Pilipinas after the championship run.
Ambohot, the season’s Finals MVP, was also ecstatic since he missed out the Philippine Basketball Association Draft due to the series.
“I’m so happy because when I leave Letran, I have proven something. All the pain was worth it,” said Ambohot, who was drafted fifth overall by Converge.
“I hope they liked my game here.”
Season 98 looked promising for the Knights until Abando inked a deal with Korean Basketball League side Anyang KGC that effectively forfeited his final playing year.
Letran even had to reschedule its first game of Season 98 after several players were tested positive for Covid 19.
After a two-game suspension to Sangalang and Brent Paraiso early in the first round and losing twice to rival San Beda University in the eliminations, Letran still found itself at second seed with a 13-5 win-loss record.
The Knights took down Lyceum of the Philippines University in the Final Four to set up a title match against Saint Benilde — a squad that hasn’t been in an NCAA finals series since 2002.
Letran took down the Blazers, 81-75 in Game 1 before Saint Benilde shocked the Knights in Game 2, 76-71, to set up an all-important Game 3 at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.
The Knights had to overcome a major challenge as Yu was ejected in Game 2 for a disqualifying foul and was suspended for Game 3.
“Our biggest challenge is playing without our captain ball and our leader Fran Yu. He is our court general in the team,” Tan said.
“It’s hard to lose a player in your rotation but we will find ways to fill in the blanks on who will take over his playing time.”
With its championship experience in full display, Letran essayed an 81-67 beating of the Blazers to end the year with a three-peat — something only the great Samboy Lim did for the Knights in 1984.
Season 98 Finals MVP and Mythical Team member King Caralipio never lost hope to the coaching staff and was rewarded for his patience.
“I just continued it and I believed it was only a matter of time. That’s why I never gave up and worked hard,” Caralipio said as the Knights are the lone NCAA squad to win two titles in the same year.
For Tan, it was all about getting the team to play as a unit to pull off the three-peat.
“I always tell the veterans that we can’t win by ourselves. They have to be older brothers to the rookies,” Tan said.
“We never even talked about the three-peat until the day before Game 3.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Yu as he wasn’t able to suit up in what could have been a storybook ending for his collegiate career.
“I’m happy because I got a three-peat. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to play this year but that’s okay,” Yu said.
“I was confident with them. I can only support them in our group chats because there really isn’t anything I can do.”
One year. Two titles.
It was truly the Year of the Knights.