MANILA, Philippines -- (2ND UPDATE) Colegio de San Juan de Letran completed one of the most remarkable upsets in recent history on Tuesday, when the Knights dethroned San Beda University to rule the NCAA Season 95 men's basketball tournament.
In front of a crowd of 19,876 fans at the Mall of Asia Arena, the Knights claimed an emotional 81-79 victory in Game 3 of the finals, winning the best-of-3 title series and claiming their first NCAA crown since 2015.
Letran ended the Red Lions' bid for a fourth consecutive title, after already spoiling their dreams of a perfect season. San Beda swept the 18-game elimination round and entered the finals with a 32-game winning streak, but the Knights stunned the Red Lions in Game 1, 65-64.
San Beda roared back, claiming a thrilling 79-76 win in Game 2 to send the series to a decider. The Knights would not be denied, however, overcoming the odds to secure their 18th title in the seniors division.
"Katulad ng sinasabi namin sa players, there's always a reason bakit nagkaroon ng Game 3. There's always a reason for everything," said Letran coach Bonnie Tan, who steered the Knights to the title in his first season in charge.
"Playing a team like San Beda, 18-0, defending champion, alam natin na mahirap, pero again, walang imposible. Sinasabi ko sa mga players na, just stay positive, continue the momentum na na-gain natin during the elimination and the stepladdder, and we'll be okay," he added.
It was a scintillating triumph for the Knights, who led by as much as 13 points in the third quarter but had to weather the Red Lions' repeated rallies in the clutch. They got a truly sensational effort from graduating team captain Jerrick Balanza, who fired 27 points and grabbed 7 rebounds, while anchoring the game-sealing defensive stop in the final seconds.
Also coming up big was Bonbon Batiller, who had 19 points and had to be helped off the court with 11 seconds left, having given the Knights all he could give.
But it was the diminutive Fran Yu who earned the MVP chants, as he knocked down two big charities with 15.9 seconds left for an 81-76 lead, then turned to wave goodbye at the red-clad San Beda gallery.
Yu earned Finals MVP honors after putting up 8 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in Game 3. He averaged 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals in the three-game series.
This is Letran's first championship since their fairytale run in Season 91, when they defeated San Beda in three games for their first title in a decade and in the process foiled the Red Lions' attempt at a "six-peat."
"The boys deserve this eh. They worked hard for this trophy," said Tan.
Weathering the Lions' roar
The Knights appeared ready to run away with the crown after posting a 69-56 advantage with 25 seconds left in the third quarter, thanks to four consecutive charities from King Caralipio. A buzzer-beating triple by AC Soberano gave the Red Lions some momentum heading into the final frame, however, with Letran settling for a 69-59 spread.
The defending champions refused to relinquish the crown easily. They opened the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run to make it a one-point game, 71-70, with still 4:52 to play. Calvin Oftana, the Season 82 MVP, anchored the run, scoring four points and assisting on a Donald Tankoua bucket.
Letran, however, had an answer every time their rivals threatened. Balanza fished for a foul against Clint Doliguez and calmly knocked down two free throws for a 73-70 lead with 3:24 to go, before Ato Ular came through with a massive three-point play to make it 76-70, with 2:06 left.
Doliguez responded with a triple on the other end, momentarily silencing the Letran crowd. But they grew raucous again almost immediately when Balanza knocked down a booming three-pointer of his own on the other end, giving the Knights a 79-73 spread with 1:29 to go.
It was Balanza's 27th point of the game, and it sent the Letran gallery into a frenzy while forcing San Beda to sue for time. Out of the timeout, the Knights got a stop, but the Red Lions were not quite done: Evan Nelle knocked down a triple that made it a one-possession game, 79-76, with still 42.2 seconds left.
San Beda muffed a chance to tie the game when Oftana bricked a triple in their next possession, and the Red Lions had no choice but to foul. With 15.9 seconds to go, a cramping Yu shook off the pain in his legs to knock down the game-sealing free throws, before waving at the San Beda crowd.
Showing incredible fighting heart, the Red Lions stayed alive when Nelle drilled a three-pointer with 11.5 seconds left for an 81-79 count, and got another chance when Oftana forced a jump ball against Yu with 5.4 seconds left, with San Beda getting possession of the ball.
That was the end of the line for the Red Lions, however. Balanza and King Caralipio smothered Nelle's attempt at a three-pointer in their final possession, and Tankoua never got a chance to attempt a putback as time expired.
"Sa amin talaga 'to... Vision ko na, na pagbalik ko, magcha-champion kami, kasi 'yun ang pinakamagandang plano ni God sa akin and sa team," said Balanza, who worked his way back from brain surgery last year to serve as Letran's captain this season.
Balanza takes over
It was a thrilling end to what had been another classic series between the archrivals, who last met in Season 91 -- when Letran also outlasted San Beda in a thrilling series that went the distance.
The Knights got it done by making 10 of their 27 three-pointers, and going a perfect 19-of-19 from the line. Their bench -- anchored by Balanza -- outscored San Beda's, 48-6. Letran shot 38.81% as a team, a shade better than the Red Lions' 38.24% clip.
The Red Lions appeared ready to take control early, surging to a 17-9 lead with Oftana and Kemark Cariño both finding their mark from beyond the arc. But Balanza took over late in the first quarter, anchoring a 9-3 run that gave them a 26-24 lead. Balanza had a three-pointer in the run, along with the assist to Larry Muyang for the buzzer-beating jumper that gave them the lead.
Balanza continued his fine play in the second period, hitting another three-pointer to highlight an 11-2 run that pushed their lead to double-digits, 37-26. The Knights pounced on the Red Lions' turnovers, with Yu and Batiller both scoring in transition.
The Red Lions had an answer, however. Baiting the Knights into fouls, they uncorked an 11-0 run of their own -- with seven points coming at the line. A split by Nelle knotted the count at 37, before Ato Ular ended Letran's silence with a hook shot for a 39-37 spread. He added another jumper with 25.2 seconds to go, before Balanza assisted on Allen Mina's buzzer-beating triple for a 44-38 advantage at the half.
Letran pulled away in the third quarter again, with Balanza and Batiller coming up with the big buckets. In the end, however, they still had to weather a final storm from the Red Lions before securing the crown.
In his final game for San Beda, Tankoua put up 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, along with 7 rebounds. Oftana had 18 points and 8 rebounds, but was clearly devastated after missing a three-pointer in the final 30 seconds that could have tied the game.
Nelle finished with 11 points and 9 assists, but shot only 3-of-12 from the field. His "Bandana Brother," James Canlas, was similarly shackled, going 4-of-17 from the field for 11 points. Doliguez also finished with 11 markers.
This marks the first time that Boyet Fernandez has lost a finals series as San Beda's head coach. He led them to the title in 2013 and 2015, and back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018 as well.
LETRAN 81 -- Balanza 27, Batiller 19, Ular 9, Yu 8, Muyang 6, Mina 6,Caralipio 4, Ambohot 2, Balagasay 0, Olivario 0, Javillonar 0, Sangalang 0.
SAN BEDA 79 -- Tankoua 22, Oftana 18, Canlas 11, Nelle 11, Doliguez 11, Carino 3, Soberano 3, Bahio 0, Abuda 0, Visser 0.
Quarter scores: 26-24, 44-38, 69-59, 81-79.
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