Letran edges UE to advance in Filoil semis

Deo Cuajao caught fire to lead Letran to a stunner against UE. Joseph Sanvictores
By Miles Arcenal

SAN JUAN, MM--Colegio de San Juan de Letran secured the first semifinal spot in the Filoil EcoOil ECJ 17th Preseason Cup after a come-from-behind win over the University of the East, 70-66, in the cross-bracket quarterfinals on Saturday at the Filoil EcoOil Centre.

Deo Cuajao took charge for Letran with 22 points and four rebounds, while former Squires standout Titing Manalili backed him up with 19 points, four assists, and five rebounds, 

"Well, number one, of course, some of our key players were absent, so I just said, 'This is the best opportunity for you guys, so make the most of it in your life.' This only happens once, and we won't be able to repeat this next year. Our goal here is to learn coming into the season," said newly formalized coach Allen Ricardo.

"We were a bit shaky, but by the grace of God, we managed to pull through in the end."

A neck-and-neck battle in the opening frame saw the league-leading NCAA team trying to keep in touch with UE, as Joseph Nunag drained a buzzer-beating jumper to end the quarter trailing by just three, 23-20.

The Red Warriors found their groove and established a 13-7 run to create separation in the first half, capped by a follow-up shot by Rain Maga at the buzzer.

Manalili took over after firing two consecutive triples to regain momentum and trim the lead to three before the penultimate quarter, 58-55.

Jovel Baliling then knocked down a wing trey to knot the game at 60-all, but Maga answered with consecutive jumpers to bring UE ahead, 64-60.

The erstwhile NCAA juniors MVP nailed a dagger to force another deadlock, 66-66, with two minutes remaining.

Cuajao’s free-throw shooting down the stretch lifted the Knights in advancing to the semifinal round. 

"I just did my best because I really wanted to make it to the semis to compete, especially against UAAP teams," said Manalili, who has been under the mentorship of Ricardo at Letran High School. 

Maga and John Abate, meanwhile, ended up with 13 and 14 points for the Red Warriors.

Letran now awaits the quarterfinal result between De La Salle University and San Beda University, who will battle later on Saturday.

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