MANILA, Philippines – Even a painful loss in Game 2 of the NCAA Season 95 finals cannot shake the confidence of Colegio de San Juan de Letran captain Jerrick Balanza, who believes they are just being set up for an even sweeter victory in Game 3.
The Knights rallied from a nightmarish start that saw them fall behind, 0-15, against San Beda University, and even took a 66-59 lead with under eight minutes to play.
San Beda recovered in the clutch, however, behind a strong performance from Calvin Oftana. The Season 95 MVP piloted the Red Lions to victory, converting the game-winning three-point play in the final 20 seconds for a 79-76 victory.
Balanza was quick to rally his teammates after the defeat, and he tried to lift up their spirits.
"Nag-huddle kami, pinaniwala ko sila na ang pagiging positibo, maganda 'yung nangyayari. 'Yun lang ang sinabi ko sa kanila, hanggang dugout. Kahit sa mga coach ko, positive lang tayo," said Balanza.
"Huwag na nating dagdagan 'yung negative na nangyari ngayon," he added. "Sabi ko, positive tayo."
The Knights still had one last chance to win the game, when Balanza passed off to a cutting Bonbon Batiller with some five seconds to go. But Batiller mishandled his shot, and San Beda's James Canlas proceeded to seal their win with a pair of free throws.
The heartbreaking nature of their defeat got to some of his teammates, said Balanza, but he refused to show signs of despair.
"Sila, iyak sila, iyak sila," he said. "Ako, nakikita nila ako na kapitan nila na, 'di ko sila pinakitaan ng ganoon. 'Di ko sila pinakitaan ng nada-down ako."
"Wala akong pinakita sa kanila na nado-down ako, hindi ako umiiyak," he added. "Talagang pinakita ko sa kanila na naka-ngiti ako, okay ang mukha. Kasi 'di ba? Ako 'yung kapitan eh. Sa akin magsisimula talaga lahat."
For Balanza, the loss meant that it is not time for their team to go their separate ways just yet. But he is confident that when they do disband, it will be as champions.
"Ako, tinatanaw ko ng positibo 'to, kasi pinapasarap lang 'to ni Lord," he said.
"Sa amin pa rin 'to. Sa amin pa rin ang Game 3. 'Yun ang sinabi ko sa team ko," he added confidently.
If Letran is to win Game 3 on Tuesday – and seal their first NCAA title since 2015 – they are going to need a lot more from their captain. Balanza is averaging just 9.5 points in the series, and shooting just 6-of-21 from the field.
Balanza is unconcerned about his own statistics, however. In Game 2, he volunteered to take over point guard duties when Fran Yu waxed hot from the field.
"Ako kahit nine points ako, masaya ako kasi binigay ko lahat. Nakita ko mainit si Fran, so 'di pwede siya 'yung magbababa and then pagdating sa kabila, siya pa din magshu-shoot. Sabi ko, naisip ko, sabi ko kay Coach, ako na muna mag-point. Si Fran ang ilagay natin sa scoring position," he said.
Even when Yu had to leave the game because of cramps, they still had a chance – if not for that last miss by Batiller.
"Close game pa din," Balanza said.
Tuesday's contest will be the last of his collegiate career, and Balanza is ready to do everything necessary to ensure that the result will be in their favor.
"Masakit kasi last game ko na, last na magkakasama," he said. "(Pero) masaya ako na ito na 'yung last game ko, kasi confident ako, na sa amin 'yun. Sa amin 'to. Talaga."
Game 3 is on Tuesday, 4 p.m., at the Mall of Asia Arena.
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