AFTER a shaky start to the season, Letran is finally getting its act together and teams are certainly starting to take notice.
After going 1-3 in their first four games, the Knights have now won their last three and will be looking to close out the first round in style by winning their final two games to get one foot inside the top four.
For a team which lost to unheralded Mapua in its first game and had a tumultuous preseason marred by abrupt transfers and doubts from the community, the Knights are starting to turn heads.
“We’re starting to pick up right now after our bad start. That’s good for us and bad news for the other teams,” said Letran head coach Jeff Napa after their heart-stopping 63-61 win over Perpetual Help last Friday.
When the losses came in, it was Napa who took the hit from all angles.
Given that the relationship between Napa and the Letran alumni community has yet to be established in the first place, the bad start only gave Napa’s detractors more mud to throw at the multi-titled UAAP juniors coach.
Instead of sulking and succumbing to the intense pressure, Napa put his head down and starting working with guys like Jeo Ambohot, Daryl Pascual and King Caralipio, who have turned into an impressive cast for the Knights.
“Kami naman as coaches, nag-iisip ng paraan palagi kahit papaano, kung sino ang mag-step up,” Napa continued. “Kahit papaano, baka meron na galing sa bench na gising. Luckily si Caralipio nag-step up.”
And as Napa starts to leave his imprints on the identity of his team, his main gunners are now starting to follow suit.
Rey Nambatac has been playing like a true leader for the Knights, with the graduating two-guard sacrificing shots and doing a little bit of everything to keep Letran afloat.
Nambatac's scoring average has dropped to 16.7 points per game, but he has been a better rebounder this season with 8.3 per game to go with a team-best 3.4 assists per game.
Nambatac’s unselfishness has allowed Bong Quinto to prove his worth to the team he almost left a few days before the season until he came to his senses and stuck in out with the Knights.
Promising to do everything to get the trust of his school back, Quinto is surely living up to his word, particularly after overcaming a busted lip to hit the game-winner against the Altas.
“Yung tiwala ni Rey sa akin, malaki. Ayaw ko naman sayangin yun,” said Quinto, who’s averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the season.
“Ngayon kasi medyo nagfo-focus ang defense kay Rey. Nagiisip lang ako ng ways na makatulong. Madalas nagfo-focus ako sa defense, pero nagkakataon din na dumadating din sa akin yung bola,” he added.
All the losses of the Knights could have gone either way.
From Andoy Estrella’s game winner in their loss to the Cardinals to an unexpected Jed Mendoza explosion in a loss to Jose Rizal University to that tight match against powerhouse San Beda – those are games that they could have easily won.
For Quinto, losses like that may sting but that only lit a fire in them.
“Nagsimula to nung sa San Beda. Nagising kami sa game nun,” Quinto said, looking back at a tight 74-81 loss to their rivals. “Sila yung gumising sa amin kasi nag 1-3 na kami nun. Inisip namin na kailangan na namin manalo para magkaroon kami ng chance.”
They now have that chance that they don’t plan on wasting when the Knights take on fellow Final Four contender San Sebastian and the unbeaten Lyceum Pirates to end their first round.
Nambatac knows it’s not gonna be easy against those two top teams, but the win streak has given them a little boost of confidence, something that they badly needed after the shaky start.
“Magandang chance na to sa amin dahil unti-unti na namin nakukuha ang rhythm namin at kumpyansa,” said Nambtac. “Nakuha na namin yung momentum na hinahanap namin.”