Lions, Knights open series
San Beda waited long enough to find out its possible rival in the Finals of the NCAA Season 95 men’s basketball tournament.
So when the Letran Knights came out on top of the grueling stepladder semifinals last week, the Red Lions knew outright that they will be in for a brutally demanding fight.
“Aside from having a deep bench, they have the length and athleticism that are hard to match,” said San Beda premier guard Evan Nelle, who is expected to start at the point for the Red Lions in Game 1 of their titular showdown Tuesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
True enough, those were the same tools that the Knights utilized to brush off the San Sebastian Stags and the Lyceum Pirates, who were originally favored to forge a third straight championship playoff with the Red Lions.
But the Lions are not short on effective manpower as evidenced by the school’s spotless 18-0 record in the eliminations with league MVP Calvin Oftana sharing the scoring task with fellow Mythical Team members James Canlas and Nelle.
“It was a long break. We have been practicing for over a week now, but we’re only able to prepare for a specific team this weekend,” said San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez, looking for his fourth straight championship with the Lions.
“Letran is well coached and well prepared. We have to find ways to counter their strengths,” added Fernandez.
Cameroonian center Donald Tankoua, the tournament’s best foreign player, will grapple for spacing inside to keep the Red Lions in control of the pivot together with Kenmark Carino and Damie Cuntapay.
“I consider ourselves as the underdogs. We lost to them twice in the elims, but I expect us to play our best in Game 1,” said Letran skipper Jerrick Balanza, one of three graduating Knights who won the 2015 title over the Lions.
The Knights have a squadron of big men in 6-foot-7 Larry Muyang, Jeo Ambohot, Marc Javillonar and Mark Sangalang plus rebounding freak Ato Ular and the graduating 6-foot-8 Christian Balagasay.
Sly and crafty guard Fran Yu, this season’s most improved player, complements Letran’s depth inside along with the seasoned backcourt trio of Edson Batiller, King Caralipio and Balanza.
“Talent-wise, this is the best team that I have handled. Now, that we were given the opportunity to play in the championships, we will take care of this,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan.
An interesting subplot would be the matchup between Tankoua and Muyang down low and Nelle’s confrontation with Yu on sharing and taking care of the leather.
“It will be a difficult matching up (against Tankoua), but it will not be easy for him either,” said Muyang, who had a pivotal role in the win over the Stags and the Pirates in the semifinals.