MANILA, Philippines – Once again, the Letran Knights stood in the way of history for the San Beda Red Lions.
In a heated do-or-die Game 3 at the NCAA Season 95 Finals, the Knights completed their magical run with a heart-stopping 81-79 escape against their heated archrivals to capture their first men’s basketball championship since 2015.
Jerrick Balanza took charge at crunch time to give the buffer Letran needed as the Knights fended off any comeback efforts to spoil San Beda’s bid for a fourth straight crown.
Back in 2015, the Knights also arrested the Red Lions’ six-peat title bid to etch their place in NCAA history.
And now, they did the same, stopping their rivals’ three-peat run to clinch another championship in the Grand Old League in front of a crowd of over 19,000 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Until the very end, the Red Lions – who pulled off a perfect 18-0 elimination run – had a shot at extending their reign. But the Knights put up a solid defense in the dying seconds and blocked Evan Nelle’s final attempt.
Fran Yu copped the Finals MVP award after averaging 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in the series.
Balanza – who returned to action just this year after a brain surgery – unleashed a game-high 27 points while Bonbon Batiller also fired 19 to power the Bonnie-Tan mentored Knights.
The entire best-of-three series turned out to be a thriller as no team won by more then 3 points. Letran shocked the league powerhouse in Game 1 by the slimmest of margins, 65-64, but San Beda forced a do-or-die match with a 79-76 Game 2 escape.
After leading by as many as 11 points in the 2nd quarter, 37-28, thanks to the hot shooting of Balanza and Bonbon Batiller, San Beda responded with an equalizing 11-0 run by making its living at the free throw line.
However, Allen Mina doused the Red Lions’ fire with a buzzer-beating triple for the 44-38 lead heading into intermission.
Letran carried this fire into the second half as they led by as many as 13, 69-56, off 4 straight free throws by King Caralipio. Unfazed, AC Soberano ended the frame with a last-second triple as San Beda entered the 4th down 10, 59-69.
But San Beda built on this last-second shot by adding 7 more points to close in within 3, 66-69, off a Donald Tankoua and-one at the 6:09 mark of the final frame.
Clint Doliguez and Calvin Oftana then added two more buckets to get within one, 70-71, capping a 14-2 run at the 4:45 mark.
Ato Ular then pushed Letran away with a huge and-one at the 2:06 mark for the 76-70 lead. Doliguez responded from deep, but Balanza got him back with a triple of his own for a 79-73 edge with 1:29 to spare.
The Red Lions, though, didn’t let up as Nelle later hit a trey from near halfcourt to trim the lead, 81-79, with 11.5 seconds left. Yet the Knights kept their composure in the dwindling seconds – even with Yu and Batiller suffering cramps – and held on for the final tally.
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.
Quarters: 26-24, 44-38, 69-59, 81-79.