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How the Knights pull off Game One shocker

Kevin Racal led the Letran Knights to an improbable Game One win in the NCAA Finals. File Photo

MANILA, Philippines -- It was an incredible 94-90 win by the Letran Knights over the San Beda Red Lions in Game One of the NCAA Season 91 Men’s Basketball Finals.

The Knights were outrebounded 50-37 that translated into a 12-4 second chance points advantage for the Red Lions. They had slightly fewer assists to SBC 25-27. They also had fewer free throw attempts 23-20; once more in favor of the five-time NCAA champions.

Letran not pegged by anyone myself included to contend for the crown are in the unlikely position of pipping San Beda for the crown. And they are doing it all-Filipino too. And to think they only had six points from the bench!

Incredible.

Letran won because they worked hard for it.

How you saw them play in Game One is exactly how they played their first game of the season — with a lot of hustle, pressing, tough, and physical defense.

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When I watch them play it is as if I am watching an American Football game. With waves of defenders swarming all over going after every ball. It starts out with the initial pressure defense from the two guards with two other players lurking behind the offensive players who have crossed the court. They makes reads especially when the eight-second backcourt violation creeping close. That allows them to pick off the pass. There is a safety in the even the secondary overplays the pass.

They forced San Beda into 29 turnovers that produced 25 points. It was singularly a huge advantage. Plus, it didn’t hurt that they stayed in-step with the Red Lions in three-pointers, hitting 12 to their nemesis’ 11 treys. Granted there were uncharacteristic errors by SBC in the endgame that was because of the pressure heaped on them by CSJL.

Pundits will point to their defense and their Big Three of Mark Cruz (17 points), Kevin Racal (28 points), and Rey Nambatac (18 points) as what gets them going. Yes, it does (and you can throw in the ascension of McJour Luib who finished with 16 points). But there are two things that are constantly overlooked.

The first is their overall game is a testament to their remarkable conditioning program.

I will say it again — how they played their first game of the NCAA Season is no different from their first game of the finals. Even with their losses, there was no let up. Whoever worked on their fitness and conditioning should be really considered by the professional teams.

You could say that some teams peaked at the right time. San Beda was devastating late in the season. Letran? No. Flatline in the good sense.

Second it is that mental toughness. How many come from behind wins did they compile during the season? How many games did they pull the rug from their foe with a last stand at the endzone (there’s that American Football reference again)?

I closely watched what rookie Letran coach Aldin Ayo did from the summer onwards. I wasn’t sure what type of coach he was. He isn’t as fiery as Louie Alas or demonstrative as Caloy Garcia. He’s more oft than not poker-faced. If you listen to his huddles, he’s calm and collected. And that perhaps, has rubbed off on his team. He doesn’t get mad at his players’ mistakes. He doesn’t bawl out players in front of the crowd. He’s just been chill.

And chill is the word.

During the second round of the season, I asked Ayo if that “C” word is apt for his team. The former Knight who won a title under Alas laughed. “I never thought of using that word,” he said. “Yung ginagamit namin kasi na word “focus.” Pero iba rin yung 'chill.’ Yes, okay na rin."

Now, Ayo — focused, unassuming, and mayhap, chill — has the Letran Knights on the precipice of a most unlikely championship.

I thought that the one team that could dethrone San Beda was the Perpetual Help Altas. They had a center who was better than Ola Adeogun in Bright Akhuetie and one of the best college players in the entire country in Scottie Thompson. They had a bench capable of lighting it up. But Letran put them away with surprising ease.

But Letran, massive underdogs, are close to ending years of heartbreak inflicted upon them by San Beda.

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