MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) — The Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights are back in the NCAA finals after four years.
This, after the Knights eked out a thrilling 92-88 victory over the Lyceum Pirates in the second phase of the Season 95 stepladder semifinals in front of a raucous crowd at Cuneta Astrodome Friday.
The result came just three days after the third-seeded Knights took down No. 4 San Sebastian, 85-80, to keep their season alive. Playing against a Lyceum team they had not yet beaten this year, the Knights submitted one of their best efforts of the season to slay the second-seeded Pirates, and push through to the championship round.
Fran Yu scored 20 points and dished out 6 assists, making the big plays in the fourth quarter while veteran Jerrick Balanza shook off a poor shooting afternoon to finish with 11 points. Larry Muyang had 19 points and 9 rebounds, sealing the victory with a clutch under-goal stab with 18 seconds to play.
Game 1 of the title series between Letran and San Beda is on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Mall of Asia Arena.
"I'll give it to my veterans," Bonnie Tan said after the game. "Sinabi ko nga last game, they want to prove something, na hindi nila na-prove the past few years."
"They never gave up," he added. "There were breaks of the game, but it's all about the effort and determination na talunin ang Lyceum."
It was a frenetic contest that featured 3 deadlocks and 11 lead changes, but the Knights appeared to have broken the game open when they surged ahead, 84-72, with 5:26 to play. Yu and Balanza sparked their breakaway, with the former assisting on buckets by Muyang before burying a three-pointer, and the latter drilling a long jumper and completing a three-point play to give them their 12-point lead.
Lyceum, however, refused to give up. They got a huge triple from Jayson David and a putback from Mike Nzeusseu to make it a five-point game, 88-83, with 63 seconds to go. After Balanza and Yu each made a free throw, Jaycee Marcelino scored two quick buckets, making it a one-possession game, 90-87, with still 24 seconds to go.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the Knights had all the answers for them. Muyang evaded the Lyceum defense for a layup that made it 92-87 with just 18.1 ticks left, and Nzeusseu could only make one of two charities on the other end to peg the final score with 9.3 to go.
Bonbon Batiller was fouled on the other end and missed both free throws, but it hardly mattered as Lyceum got nothing going at the buzzer.
"Nakakalungkot lang dahil kailangan naming talunin ang aking former team," said Tan, who coached Lyceum until 2014. "Malungkot na masaya. I'm happy for them (LPU), nakapag-championship sila in the past two years."
"I'm happy na makakalaro ng championship 'yung mga players ko," he said.
This is the Knights' first Finals appearance since Season 91, when a team coached by Aldin Ayo took down the mighty San Beda Red Lions to win the crown.
They will once again face San Beda in the best-of-3 title series, with the Red Lions having advanced to the Finals outright after an 18-0 sweep of the elimination round.
Letran shot 49.3% from the field, with Muyang missing just two of his 10 field goal attempts.
Squandered in the loss was a 26-point outing by Jaycee Marcelino, and a 19-point, 15-rebound double-double from Nzeusseu who played his final game as a Pirate. David had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists before fouling out with a minute to play.
In a back-and-forth first half, the Pirates ramped up the pace upon the entry of Jaycee and Jayvee Marcelino midway though the opening frame. The twins helped Lyceum take a 26-20 lead after the first period with Renzo Navarro and Reymar Caduyac also contributing.
The Knights struck back in the second thanks to Tommy Olivario, who assisted on an open three-pointer for Batiller and an easy jumper by Mark Sangalang. That gave them a 35-30 lead, and Sangalang later added a bucket off a Batiller feed for a 7-point cushion.
The Pirates quickly erased the deficit, however. Nzeusseu threw down a pair of dunks — including an alley-oop off a fine pass from Navarro — to give his team a 40-39 advantage with under a minute to go. But it was Letran that ended the first half on a strong note, thanks to the diminutive Yu. After two free throws by Batiller gave the lead back to the Knights, Yu drew a foul on Navarro, made his first free throw, but missed the second. Undeterred, he ripped the ball from Reymar Caduyac for an easy layup that put Letran ahead, 44-40, at the break.
The Knights managed to fend off the Pirates in the third quarter, and completed the thrilling victory to end Lyceum's streak of back-to-back Finals appearances.
LETRAN 92 — Yu 20, Muyang 19, Batiller 13, Balanza 11, Reyson 6, Mina 5, Sangalang 5, Balagasay 4, Ular 4, Caralipio 2, Javillonar 2, Ambohot 1, Olivario 0.
LYCEUM 88 — Jc. Marcelino 26, Nzeusseu 19, David 11, Caduyac 5, Jv. Marcelino 5, Navarro 5, Tansingco 4, Ibanez 4, Remulla 4, Santos 3, Guinto 2, Valdez 0.
Quarters: 20-26, 44-40, 67-66, 92-88.
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