Fran Yu emerged as the Knight in shining armor for Letran as the defending champions moved on the cusp of another NCAA title after pulling off a 68-63 come-from-behind win over Mapua in Game 1 of the best-of-three Season 97 Finals on Sunday, May 15 at the FilOil Flying V Arena in San Juan.
With the Cardinals clamping down on the Knights in the first three quarters, Yu once again showed the nerves of steel and delivered the crucial basket including a key defensive stop in the waning minutes to help Letran inch closer to its second-straight title and a possible season sweep.
Without top gun Rhenz Abando who sprained his left ankle late in the third frame, Yu took over in the crucial minutes, drilling a booming jumper that shoved Letran within one, 61-62, with 1:06 left in the game, much to the delight of their fans inside the jump-packed San Juan Arena.
Letran then buckled down on the defensive end to complete a huge stop before Ambohot nailed a contested floater to give the lead to the Knights for the first time, 63-62, with 45 seconds remaining.
Yu then typified Letran’s league-leading defense, completing a steal on the next play to which Brent Paraiso converted into a layup for a comfortable 66-62 cushion with 15 ticks left.
Paraiso who carried the fight for Letran in the first three quarters finished with 14 points while Louie Sangalang added 14 markers and seven boards. Abando also scattered 13 points and seven rebounds before he went out of the game with an injury.
The Knights made up for their 0-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc with its defense, limiting the Cardinals to just nine points in the payoff period.
“Talagang defense is the key, we shutdown yung fourth quarter points nila, again heart of a champion, good defense, dun yung chances na manalo nandun lalo na kapag dikit ‘yung laban,” said Letran head coach Bonnie Tan.
Warren Bonifacio and Arvin Gamboa paced the Cardinals with 10 points each but weren’t enough as they collapsed in the final minutes after protecting the lead for most parts of the contest.
Mapua was off to a hot start as it raced to a 8-2 lead that even forced Tan to call a quick timeout to restore order for the defending champs. The Cardinals though refused to back down against the Knights as it kept the lead at the end of the opening 24-15.
Paraiso then came alive in the second quarter as a quick six-point spurt allowed Letran to cut the lead down four, 34-30 after trailing by 10 points early on. Gamboa, Bonifacio and Hernandez though delivered timely hits to keep Mapua’s head above the water at the half, 39-32.