Photo by Angelou Diño/ The LANCE.
A new season has begun.
With key contributors gone, a new crop of Knights charge bravely into NCAA Season 95.
Now that the first round is in the books, let's take a look at what went down during the Knights’ campaign.
The Letran Knights endured a dismaying loss in the season opener against the Lyceum of the Philippines Pirates, 80-84, as Jaycee and Jayvee Marcelino exploded with a combined 42 points.
Jeo Ambohot was able to bring the score to 77-all after splitting his shots from the stripe. Looking to close out the game, Jaycee Marcelino drove hard to the basket, picking up Larry Muyang’s fifth foul and converting an and-one play to hand his side an 80-77 advantage.
Bonbon Batiller drained a three-pointer to bring Letran within two, 80-82, but a costly turnover from Jerrick Balanza sealed the deal for the Pirates.
New Letran head coach Bonnie Tan, was obviously not pleased with what he saw.
“We had some costly errors in the end-game, we had a lot of missed free throws, medyo masama yun, ‘di ko alam kung opening jitters,” said a dejected Tan after the match.
“Hindi ako happy. We’ve been practicing that, yung mga errors naming kanina, unforced e, simple errors e. Yun ang pinapractice namin all offseason,” he explained.
It was a bittersweet return for the 44-year old mentor after a five-year hiatus from the coaching scene.
Co-incidentally, Tan made his return against the Pirates - a team which he handled for 11 years before concentrating on managerial duties at GlobalPort.
“Ngayon it’s a different story, gusto ko naman siyempre manalo. Medyo fail yung resulta sa first game. Marami pa namang games, hopefully makarecover kami,” he said.
Balanza propelled the Letran Knights past the Arellano University Chiefs, 81-72, to pick up their first win of the season. Balanza notched his career-high in points, firing 31 markers, to go along with three rebounds.
Letran went on to cruise towards its second consecutive victory after beating the JRU Heavy Bombers, 55-43.
Heading into the fourth, Paolo Javillonar drained six points to extinguish JRU’s hot streak followed by a three courtesy of Fran Yu as they regained momentum and extended their lead to 13, 50-37. The Knights never looked back as they held on to claim the win.
From there, Letran Knights clinched their third straight win in a thrilling overtime fashion against the Perpetual Altas, 82-80. It was a tight battle that saw seven lead changes.
Jielo Razon tried to send the game into a double-overtime with a jumper from the right-wing but missed. Ambohot secured the rebound, sealing the Altas' fate.
The Letran Knights held on despite a late push from the Emilio Aguinaldo College Generals, bagging their fourth straight win. Ular was able to block a lay-up from Renz Gonzales within the last 12 seconds of the game, followed by two bricked shots from Batiller, safeguarding the Knights' victory against the Generals, 91-89.
The streaking Knights then went on to deny the Mapua Cardinals their first win, 89-84. A shot clock beating trey from Batiller and a block from Ular preserved the win for the Knights.
In front of a huge Letran contingent in the gallery, the Knights suffered a heartbreaking loss to arch-rivals San Beda Red Lions, 66-70.
The Knights were given a chance after a door was left open for them with San Beda’s Evan Nelle missing three of four from the stripe in the endgame and Balanza hitting a booming triple, pulling them within four with 11.7 seconds left.
After another defensive stop, Balanza had another try from deep, which missed the mark, and ended Letran’s winning run.
Muyang’s career game then went to waste as Letran faltered in overtime against San Sebastian, 101-102.
“We took it as positive pa din, talo ngayon, pero hopefully 'yung tapang at courage na pinakita natin sa game na to ay laruin sa lahat ng games,” said Tan.
Late in OT, Knights charged ahead, 99-98, but the Stags took the lead again after Alvin Capobres and Ken Villapando hit two-of-four from the line.
Letran still had 18.5 seconds to win the game but Fran Yu missed a three that sealed the Knights’ second straight loss and third overall in eight games.
After two heart-aching defeats, Letran Knights arrested a two-game losing skid after flat-out dominating the College of St. Benilde Blazers, 88-64.
Balanza celebrated his birthday by showing the way for Letran in the wire-to-wire win with 26 points.
The Knights entered halftime with only a one-point lead, 21-20, before a big 27-point in the third quarter boosted them ahead, 73-49.
Balanza and Ambohot extended the Knights’ lead to as much as 28, 82-54, after unloading back-to-back threes with only eight minutes left.
From there, Letran cruised to a share of third in the standings with a 6-3 record.
Coach Bonnie Tan also expressed rapture after ending the first round on a high.
“We have a lot of close games, pero ito talaga hinahanap namin na laro. We know it’s not a perfect game, pero it’s a good win compared to other games. Magandang ending, sa first round,” said Tan.
“Sana icontinue nila yung ganitong klaseng laro, and hopefully ‘yung pick-up namin sa second round wag nila ibreak, tuloy-tuloy lang,” he added.
After successfully recovering from a brain tumor, Jerrick Balanza is all set to make the most of his last playing year with the Letran Knights.
The six-foot-two shooting guard is currently averaging 17.4 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.0 rebounds after missing all of the second round and the playoffs last season.
Balanza was eager to get back in shape and immediately started conditioning his body right after his recovery. He admits being hard on himself to keep up with his teammates.
"January ako nagsimula magensayo pagbigay sakin ng go signal. Sa una dahan-dahan lang, sumunod na lingo ‘yon bugbugan na 2-3 practice everyday na. Ganon ginawa ko kasi talagang pinahirapan ko sarili ko kasi diba mahaba hahabulin ko, mga teammate ko condition na," he said.
In a game against JRU, Balanza notched his career-high in points, firing 31 markers, to go along with three rebounds, and two assists to help the Knights barge into the win column with a 1-1 win-loss slate.
"Sa sarili ko wala na akong expectation, every game all out lang ako lagi ‘yon talaga," said Balanza.
"I treat my game as my last game, lagi talaga," he added.
Letran’s new double-double machine Ato Ular is starting to make a name of his own. The 6’4 Tarlac pride averages 10.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, shooting 60% from the field.
Ular had a double-double of 19 points and 13 rebounds in the thrilling overtime game against Perpetual Altas.
He also admitted that Tan really pushed him to break out of his shell.
“Kung anong papatrabaho ni coach gagawin ko talaga. Kung anong sasabihin niya gagawin ko basta manalo lang kami,” said Ular.