Letran turned on the heat in the fourth quarter, where College of St. Benilde wilted under pressure, allowing the Knights to pull off an 81-75 win on Sunday in Game 1 of the 98th National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball finals at the Araneta Coliseum.
Five Blazers succumbed to cramps and injuries as the Knights moved out of range in the payoff period en route to the win that moved the team to within a win shy of ruling the league for the third straight season.
Louie Sangalang banged in a game-high 24 points and hauled in 10 rebounds for the Knights, who now have the momentum to sweep their best-of-three finals’ series in Game 2 on Sunday.
“Composure is the key word here. The veterans played steady,” said Knights’ coach Bonnie Tan, now that Letran is nearing their 20th men’s crown.
Tan stressed the experience in playing in a championship setting held the team together.
Blazers’ cager Migs Corteza was the first to go after hurting his knee during a rebound play as CSB held a 65-62 edge with 2:16 remaining in the third.
Top MVP candidate Will Gozum kept the Blazers on top with a 67-66 edge in the last 46 seconds of the third, but another key player, Mark Sangco went out on a hurt left knee.
As the Knights took a 9-2 run and snatched the lead, 75-69, in the final 5:39, Gozum was sent out on a cramped right ankle, along with Robi Nayve, who twisted his own ankle.
The Knights never relinquished the lead from then on as they drew 16 points from King Carilipio.
Gozum and Corteza still went on to carry the Blazers with 18 points apiece.
The Knights hardly minded the absence of Kobe Monje, who was disqualified in the second quarter due to an unsportsmanlike foul on Macoy Marcos. Brent Paraiso also fouled out with 3:49 remaining, but it hardly mattered as Letran was up by seven, 76-69.
“It was really frustrating, to be really honest. We felt we were in the game. We felt we were making our run, we had the lead, and then everybody cramps up,” said CSB coach Charles Tiu.