MANILA, Philippines -- What was shaping up to be a dream campaign instead ended in tears for San Beda University on Tuesday, as the Red Lions were shockingly dethroned by archrival Colegio de San Juan de Letran in the NCAA Season 95 finals.
The Knights claimed an 81-79 win in the do-or-die Game 3 at the Mall of Asia Arena, ending the Red Lions' three-year reign at the top of the NCAA. It was Letran's first title since 2015 -- when they also ended what had been a five-year run as champions by San Beda.
This loss was particularly painful, however, as the Red Lions had swept their way to the finals by winning all 18 of their elimination round games. Once there, however, they were ambushed by their rivals: Letran won Game 1, 65-64, narrowly lost Game 2, 79-76, then completed the upset in the third game.
"It was really a good run. We had an 18-0 run but we never finished it off," a somber Boyet Fernandez said, a few hours after confetti had fallen at the MOA Arena to celebrate Letran's title.
Fernandez acknowledged that the long layoff between games had an impact. There were 27 days between San Beda's last game of the eliminations -- an 85-62 rout of Lyceum of the Philippines University -- and Game 1 of the finals.
"If you look at it, masama 'di ba?" he said, but was quick to add that it was not the reason for their loss in the title series.
"You cannot really buy the finals seat right away. So, that's a sacrifice that we have to get. Hindi naman puro lahat masaya. So we'll take that 27 days," he added.
Fernandez made it clear that during the 27-day break, they "did a good job preparing the team."
"It's just a matter of how we finish it. 'Yun lang 'yun, 'yung pang icing on the cake na dapat, hindi pa namin nagawa," he rued.
The Red Lions won their games by an average margin of nearly 19 points per game in the elimination round, but the Knights never let them take control in the finals. All three games were nip-and-tuck affairs, with double-digit leads by either team evaporating quickly. All three games went down the wire, and in Games 1 and 2, it was Letran that showed better poise down the stretch.
San Beda very nearly stole the win -- and the title -- in Game 3, with a last-ditch rally led by Evan Nelle. The sophomore point guard drilled the triple that made it a two-point game with 11 seconds left, and they forced a jump ball with 5.4 seconds to go, to regain possession.
It was not meant to be, however. Jerrick Balanza smothered Nelle in the final possession, and the buzzer sounded before Donald Tankoua could fully get control of the ball under the basket.
"Botched play," Fernandez said of their last possession. "Well, ganyan talaga."
It was clear that San Beda's relative youth and inexperience came to light in the finals. While they still had Tankoua, a bulk of their players -- including Nelle, Season 82 MVP Calvin Oftana, and Mythical Team member James Canlas -- were getting major minutes for the first time in their careers.
"It was really a surprise that we had an 18-0 (record) because of the youth that I have, and mga bata pa talaga. Siguro the pressure was there," said Fernandez.
The coach stressed, however, that the result of the finals was on him, and not on his players.
"I'll take all the blame for this loss. I'll really take this blame. Kasi, I really have to guide them eh," he said.
Fernandez said he told his players, "People will ask from you, you just tell them, it's your coach's fault, it's my fault."
"Sa akin na lahat ibunto lahat ng sisi. Ako naman ang head coach dito," he added.
This is the first time that Fernandez has lost a title series in the NCAA, after winning in Season 89 and 90, and again in Seasons 93 and 94. Already, the coach is plotting their return to the top next year.
"We look forward na lang (to) next season," said Fernandez.
"Kailangan ko pa rin talaga i-improve ang players ko, and it's all back to me. It goes back to me," he said. "Kailangan pa talagang i-improve ko pa 'yung team namin."
He is confident that the pain of their defeat this year will only fuel the young Red Lions for next season.
"It will really help us to be stronger next time, and hopefully learn from the situation that happened this year, and probably we'll be better in the future," said Fernandez.
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