It was very clear from the onset that Letran will be betting on flashy new recruit Rhenz Abando to fuel its title retention bid—probably more than coach Bonnie Tan would admit.
“We only met Rhenz last February,” bared Tan after Letran’s scrambling 67-63 victory over hard-fighting host St. Benilde on Saturday at the start of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball tournament. “So we are all adjusting. But of course we want him to play his full potential for Letran although we are not rushing him. No pressure.”
It didn’t look that way, though, as the former University of Santo Tomas guard started for the Knights, trying to single-handedly get his new team into the groove as both teams tried to shake off the rust from months of activity due to lockdowns imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. And it took time for them to wake up to the reality of an actual game.
It took almost three minutes before anybody could make a basket, with Will Gozum sinking a layup for the Blazers. Abando came up with the next points, hitting for the Knights almost two minutes later, 5:08 left in the first period.
Abando finished with 19 points including a three-pointer in the final four minutes to ignite Letran’s endgame kick as Season 97 opened face-to-face action at La Salle Greenhills.
The guard, who left the Growling Tigers at the height of a major protocol violation in Sorsogon last year, ran the transition lanes and created situations for the Knights, who last played in November 2019 when they defeated the San Beda Red Lions for the Season 95 title.
“The players didn’t want to lose, good thing the veterans stepped up, Rhenz and Fran Yu,” said Tan. “It was a very tough game. We entered the game blindfolded because we didn’t know want to expect.”
Letran’s Mark Javillonar and Louie Sanggalang followed Abando’s lead, and on Yu’s cues, fired pressure-packed baskets to ensure the win for Knights, who started even more erratic than the low-key Blazers.
Despite the absence of big names or shiny recruits in St. Benilde’s roster, the host managed to take control of the first half, leading by as much as 32-20 on a three-pointer by point guard Robi Nayve, 3:40 left in the second quarter.
“I was expecting that it’s going to be tight game, but they (St. Benilde) led us by double digits,” said Tan.
Alfonso Benson led the Blazers with 16 points, while Carlo Lim added 10. Benson missed two charities in the last 1:38 which could have spelled the difference as the Knights then were just ahead by one, 62-61.
In the second game, San Beda repulsed Lyceum, 84-76, setting its title bid on the right path.
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