MANILA, Philippines — A perfect 20-0 season is off the table for San Beda, after the Red Lions suffered their first loss of the NCAA Season 95 tournament in Game 1 of the Finals.
Coming off a 27-day layoff, the Red Lions sputtered offensively and bowed to the Letran Knights, 65-64, on Tuesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
It was a stunning result for the Red Lions, who had won all 18 of their games in the elimination round — often in dominant fashion, as they had an average winning margin of 18.9 points per game.
"I think the scores were in our favor, below 70 points. But the problem is we really missed our shots in the 3-point area," said San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez after their defeat.
"We shot 6 out of 40 (3-pointers). We've been shooting well from the 3-point area, we're the No. 1 team in the league. And, come to the Finals, our 3-point shots left us today," he added.
Fernandez credited Letran for its defense, which flustered the Red Lions all game long. Calvin Oftana, the Season 95 MVP, missed two 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds that could have given his team the lead. Evan Nelle, a Mythical Team member and the league-leader in assists, had just one dime in the game as the Red Lions struggled to convert from the field.
As poorly as the Red Lions played, they still had a chance to win. They were down by a point, 65-64, with 12 seconds left after they forced Letran to commit a shot-clock violation. But out of a timeout, they failed to execute their play, and Oftana's potential go-ahead shot hit the iron before Letran's Fran Yu grabbed the crucial rebound.
"We've been practicing it. We're practicing it for the past 27 days, that crucial play, but it's probably because of the pressure," said Fernandez of their last play.
"We really simulated everything, my players know that. But again, it's a matter of execution."
Still, Fernandez took responsibility for the defeat.
"As what I've said to the players today, I will always take the blame every time we lose," he stressed.
It will be up to the Red Lions, however, to bounce back from the loss. Fernandez said he believes that they played under plenty of pressure, thanks in large part to their own achievements in the elimination round. He also acknowledged the long break played a factor, particularly when it came to their offense and execution.
"We just have to suck this up and move forward for Friday," he said. "I told my boys, just accept the pain, fight the pain, and when you go home, you think about the things that we did not do well."
"But eventually, you think about the things that we did well because, well, we only limited Letran to 65 points, and their average is 86 points per ball game the last 20 games. If we can still do that on Friday and make our shots, then we give ourselves a chance for Game 2," Fernandez added.
While a sweep of the whole tournament is no longer possible for the Red Lions, their ultimate goal — the championship —is still within their grasp. Fernandez said he is hopeful that his players can learn from their defeat and regain their form in time for Friday's Game 2.
"It's a big test for us, a big test of our character, and a big test of the maturity of my young boys," he said. "This is a big pressure for us. We really have to win on Friday, if not then, we're just giving up the championship."
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