MANILA, Philippines – Art dela Cruz will return to the Mall of Asia Arena on Tuesday, to see if San Beda University can do what he failed to achieve in his final season in the NCAA – beat their archrivals, Colegio de San Juan de Letran, in the finals.
Dela Cruz was in his final season for San Beda in 2015, when their bid for a sixth consecutive championship was derailed by the Knights.
Their finals series was one for the ages: Letran escaped with a 94-90 win in Game 1, before San Beda's defense held strong for a 68-61 triumph in Game 2.
The third game was a classic in every sense of the word. In front of over 20,000 fans at the MOA Arena, the Knights fended off a late rally led by Baser Amer to break the hearts of the Red Lions, 85-82, in overtime. Dela Cruz, in his final game, put up 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists. It wasn't enough to deny the Knights a fairy tale ending to a dream season.
Dela Cruz has since gone on to have a solid career as a professional. He is currently a valued rotation player for Barangay Ginebra. On Tuesday, he returns to the scene of his collegiate heartbreak in the hopes of seeing the Red Lions get their fourth straight title, at the expense of their nemesis.
"We'll see about it," Dela Cruz told ABS-CBN News. "Panoorin natin, I'll be there watching them, (to) support."
The Season 95 finals is shaping up to be an all-timer as well. Letran shocked the Red Lions in Game 1, hacking out a 65-64 win to end San Beda's 32-game winning streak and spoiling their bid for a perfect campaign. The defending champions roared back in Game 2, holding on for a 79-76 win to force the deciding game.
Dela Cruz was admittedly surprised at San Beda's Game 1 loss. The Red Lions sailed through the elimination round, winning all 18 of their games by an average margin of nearly 19 points per contest.
"Nagulat ako kasi, may kalawang nga eh," said Dela Cruz, who noted that San Beda head coach Boyet Fernandez was not a fan of long breaks. "Sa sobrang haba ng season, parang naubos na rin 'yung players."
"Nakakagulat man, pero maganda na rin 'yun para wake-up call sa kanila," he added. "Naka-bounce back naman."
Dela Cruz knows Fernandez will have the Red Lions well-prepared for Game 3. "Ilalatag niya talaga sa players 'yung game," he said.
After all, he knows Fernandez and his tactics well: Dela Cruz was the Finals MVP in Season 89, when Fernandez steered San Beda to the crown. Their opponent then? Also the Letran Knights.
"Ang advice ko sa kanila, laro mo lang. Laro mo lang 'yung sistema, huwag kang lalabas sa sistema ni Coach Boyet," Dela Cruz says. "Binuild niya na 'yan eh. Kumbaga, hindi ka niya papahirapan."
"Madali lang 'yung sistema ni Coach Boyet. Para sa akin, do your role and hayaan mo lang. Hayaan mo lang, go with the flow lang," he added.
Dela Cruz still remembers the electric atmosphere of the finals, and he encourages the Red Lions to keep calm when they play in front of what should be a frenetic crowd at the MOA Arena.
"Huwag kang kabahan, huwag kayong kakabahan kasi lahat, ang daming gustong player makaabot ng ganyang stage eh," he said. "Ako, PBA na ako pero gustong-gusto kong umabot doon."
"Kaya cherish mo lang 'yung moments, moment na 'yan kasi hindi na babalik 'yan, sa apat or limang taon. 'Yun lang ang darating sa'yo, kaya i-cherish mo 'yung moment na 'yan," he stressed.
If the Red Lions stay composed, play within the system, and do the little things that got them their elimination round sweep, Dela Cruz is confident they can lift the trophy at the end of the game.
"Nakalawang man sila, pero alam ko, they're more experienced in championships, from coaching staff down to the last man in the team," he pointed out. "For sure, they'll give their best."
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