Bound for history or destined for glory?
MANILA, Philippines - San Beda and Letran collide today in Game One of the NCAA men’s basketball finals with the Lions trying to complete a historic third three-peat and the Knights out to find out if it is destined to win the crown after a mind-boggling season.
The match, set at 6 p.m., marks the first time in five years that the league's winningest teams – with 16 titles each – will be facing each other for the championship with the winner gaining the bragging rights as the most titled squad in the country’s oldest collegiate league.
"I know San Beda has a proud tradition though it's just my first year here," said San Beda coach Ronnie Magsanoc, who took over from Frankie Lim early this year.
Game Two is set Saturday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum while the decider, if necessary, will be played Oct. 25 also at the Big Dome.
San Beda has been the yardstick of success in the NCAA in the last decade after making it to the finals for the seventh straight time, winning five of the last six championships. Another title will complete a second three-peat in the last seven years and further cement its status as the league's most dominant team.
In contrast, Letran is hungry for a crown – and a payback. The Knights last made the finals five years ago, losing to the Red Lions.
"I've forgotten how it feels like to play in the finals, it's been quite a while since I’ve been there," said Letran mentor Louie Alas, who whipped up the Knights from a stumbling crew in the early going of the elims into a serious title-contender following a stirring eight-game run, including two over the No. 2 San Sebastian Stags in the Final Four.
"We've been through a lot and defied the odds. Who would have thought after we went 4-5 (win-loss) we still managed to end up in the Final Four and now in the finals," said Alas, whose charges overcame the Stags’ twice-to-beat edge with 92-76 and 73-70 victories last week.
"That's probably destiny, we'll see," Alas said.
San Beda is also trying to become the first team to accomplish a three-peat thrice. The Knights scored a pair in the 1931-34 and 1982-84 seasons with the Lions matching it in 1934-37 and 2006-08.
The two have been in the elite club of three-peat winners that also include the San Sebastian Stags (1993-97), and the Ateneo Eagles (1934-37), former members now with the UAAP.
Meanwhile, San Beda seeks for a four-peat feat in the high school division as it battles San Sebastian in their own best-of-three series at 4 p.m.
Letran is also trying to end San Beda's domination as the Knights have lost 14 games to the Lions, including a 43-65 defeat last Aug. 16 and a 62-68 setback last Sept. 1.
The Knights' last victory over the Mendiola-based cagers came five years ago when Rey Guevarra dunked on Nigerian Sam Ekwe in the dying seconds for a come-from-behind 70-69 triumph.
"They're a different team now, they're no longer the same team we defeated before," said SBC's Nigerian Ola Adeogun.
Adeogun will be one of the many problems Alas and the Knights would be facing in the series after the 6-7 rookie turned in a career high 23-point effort in their Final Four win over Perpetual.
"He (Adeogun) and Baser Amer are one of the chief problems we will be trying our best to find a way to solve," said Alas.
Alas' assistant, Tino Pinat, for his part, expects the Lions to use the bull-strong Adeogun, who averaged about 19-20 minutes a game, more.
"Coach Ronnie (Magsanoc) did well in managing the playing time of Ola Adeogun," said Pinat. "We expect them to use him (Adeogun) even more in the finals because he played 29 minutes in the Final Four alone."
For Letran, focus will be on the 5-5 Mac Cruz, who stood the tallest following a pair of spectacular 20-point performances in the Final Four, and Kevin Alas, who fired 61 points in the semis, including a 43-point explosion in Game One.
The Knights also boast of a tough frontline troika of Jam Cortes, who is on his fifth and last season, Raymond Almazan and Jonathan Belorio.
"The have three of the toughest big men in the league right now so we have to overcome them," said San Beda team manager Jude Roque referring to Cortes, Almazan and Belorio.