MANILA, Philippines -- Colegio de San Juan de Letran guard Jerrick Balanza could only breathe a sigh of relief after Fran Yu grabbed the offensive rebound with just 10 seconds left in their knockout game against San Sebastian College in the NCAA Season 95 stepladder semis.
The Knights were clinging to an 83-80 lead, and Balanza had just bricked two charities with 13 seconds to go -- free throws that could have iced the game. But Yu was there to bail him out, and the young guard knocked down his own free throws to peg the final score at 85-80.
"Na-disappoint ako eh, kasi 'yun 'yung chance ko na para mag-thank you sa Letran community," Balanza said of his two misses at the line -- his only mistakes at the stripe after making his first four free throws in the contest.
"Pero ako, positive-minded kasi ako eh. So hindi man shumoot 'yung dalawang 'yun, maganda pa rin 'yung nangyari," he pointed out. "Nakuha pa rin ni Fran… Naging positive pa din 'yung nangyari kahit na-miss ko 'yung dalawa."
Balanza's late misses were the only blight in what was otherwise another solid game for the Letran captain. He finished with a team-high 15 points, going 4-of-7 from the field, along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. He nailed a pair of crucial three-pointers in the third frame to help keep San Sebastian at bay, and in the fourth quarter, Balanza took over defensive duties against RK Ilagan.
The San Sebastian guard had caught fire, and was scoring repeatedly off Yu in the post. Balanza took on the challenge of defending Ilagan in crunch time, and helped force the shifty guard into a backing violation in the final 65 seconds of the game.
Their triumph over San Sebastian was especially meaningful to Balanza, who saw his campaign in Season 94 come to a premature end because of a brain tumor. In Season 95, he has done all he can to make up for lost time, and their win on Tuesday meant that his NCAA career continues for at least one more game.
"Redemption talaga eh," a beaming Balanza said.
"Sa akin, lahat ng opportunity sa 'kin, maganda kasi eh," he added. "Talagang positive 'yung nangyayari sa akin. 'Yung mga utang sa akin nakakalaban ko pa, may chance pa ako kasi andito pa ako. Maganda talaga."
Their win over San Sebastian sent the Knights to the next rung of the stepladder semifinals, where they will now play Lyceum of the Philippines University in another knockout game.
It is another shot at redemption for Balanza, who was forced to watch at the sidelines last year as Letran bowed to the Pirates in the Final 4.
"Sobrang excited," he said. "Kasi, kanina nga, usap kami ng mga teammate ko, kung pwede lang bukas, game na kami agad eh."
"Excited ako, kasi alam ko na hindi pa natatapos lahat," he also said. "Ayaw pa din namin talagang magbakasyon."
And after missing a pair of crucial free throws against the Golden Stags, Balanza is grateful that he has at least one more chance to show his gratitude to the Letran community that showed up to support them in the semis.
"Papakita ko na lang every game na alam mo 'yun, para sa kanila talaga. 'Yung pagbalik ko sa NCAA, sa Letran, para sa kanila talaga," he said.
The winner of the Letran-Lyceum game advances to play defending champion San Beda University in the best-of-3 finals.
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