MANILA, Philippines — The Letran Knights completed their Cinderella season after stunning three-time defending champions San Beda Red Lions, 81-79, to win the NCAA Season 95 men's basketball championship Tuesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Jerrick Balanza, who had the best season of his career after enduring surgery for a brain tumor, paced Letran with 27 points, including triples.
With 1:29 ticks left in the game, Balanza came through with a trey to extend Letran’s lead to six, 79-73, which eventually led to the Knights’ first title since 2015 and 18th overall.
The championship seemed to be well on its way to Mendiola once again before the Knights stunned the Lions, who swept their way to the finals after 18 games. After 32 straight wins, including the season’s elimination round, the Red Lions dropped the first game of the series against the Knights by one point in last Friday's gritty, hard-fought affair where no lead exceeded six points.
Suddenly, the pressure was on the Lions, who absorbed a hard loss for the first time since their last on August 21 last year.
Letran took an early lead after Larry Muyang's buzzer-beating fade-away jumper put the Knights on top, 26-24, ending a gritty first period that saw Letran erase a seven-point deficit.
The Knights then stretched their lead to 11 points in the second quarter after a Bonbon Batiller steal led to a fastbreak layup. But after going down with a minor sprain on his left ankle in the first period, league MVP Calvin Oftana returned later in the second quarter to stop the bleeding for San Beda.
Allen Mina beat the buzzer for the Knights once again with a corner three that saw Letran enter halftime with a 44-38 lead.
The two teams traded baskets at this point, but San Beda could not put together a run of their own and continued to fire blanks from long range. The Intramuros-based squad seemed to have an answer for San Beda every time as they entered the payoff period still nursing a ten-point lead, 69-59.
Donald Tankoua went to work in the fourth canto with a flurry of post moves and rim-runs, cutting the deficit to just three points off an and-one opportunity, 69-66. Clint Doliguez and Oftana then joined in on the fastbreak to carry San Beda to a 14-2 run to bring the score to 70-71 with 3:24 left in the contest.
Approaching the dying seconds of the game, San Beda’s full-court press could do nothing to stifle the surging Knights. Lions gunner Evan Nelle hit a trey with 44 seconds left to cut the deficit to three, but a Balanza offensive rebound with 21 seconds left and Most Improved Player Fran Yu’s two made free throws ensured that the championship trophy would be heading to Intramuros.
Yu came away with the Finals Most Valuable Player award.
The Knights roared their way into the finals series on the heels of a magical finals run that saw them down the Lyceum Pirates en route to their finals showdown with their archrivals. The Bonnie Tan-coached team previously marched on to steal the crown from San Beda in Season 91 to the tune of former head coach Aldin Ayo's "Mayhem" defense for their first crown in ten years.
Making it sweeter for Letran was the fact that it came at the expense of their archrivals, effectively halting the latter’s bid for a rare four-peat. The two teams last faced each other in the finals in 2015.
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