MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Colegio de San Juan de Letran denied Mapua Institute of Technology’s objective to live another day and entered the NCAA Season 91 men’s basketball Finals with a 91-90 escape in a jittery semifinal faceoff on Tuesday, October 20, at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Pro-bound gunslinger Mark Cruz served as the Knights’ anchor in its campaign to enter the championship round of the country’s oldest collegiate league for the first time since 2013.
The 5-foot-5 guard torched Mapua with 26 points, including 13 in the third quarter, along with 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
Cruz’s fellow PBA draftee Kevin Racal finished with a double-double performance of 19 markers and 12 boards to come along with two dimes, 3 steals, and one block.
“Everyone belittled us the entire season, but now we are here. All the hard work has paid off. Of course, we are here to win it all,” Letran rookie coach Aldin Ayo said in the post-game interview.
It was a thrilling shootout contest from start to finish as the fixture had 13 lead changes.
Mapua seriously threatened at the start of the third frame, when Exeqiel Biteng nailed back-to-back triples followed by Darell Menina’s own shot from downtown to create a 51-45 cushion.
Cruz, however, responded with 3 straight 3-pointers as Mcjour Luib chipped in his own shot from beyond the arc.
As Letran bannered a 67-62 leverage inside the last minute of the third quarter, Menina retaliated with a 3-pointer and Biteng sank two freebies from the foul line, along with another triple to give Mapua a 70-67 edge going into the fourth period.
With Allwell Oraeme and Josan Nimes steering the charge for Mapua’s frontline unit, Letran claimed a 79-76 lead midway of the final quarter courtesy of Cruz’s lay-up and a gutsy drive to the rim by Jomari Sollano.
With 31.3 ticks left and Letran holding a 90-85 advantage, Oraeme put Mapua within striking distance with a putback to cut the deficit to 3.
Although John Nieles rattled in a 3-pointer with 0.5 left on the clock, Cruz’s lone free throw 8 seconds earlier helped Letran secure the victory.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t absorbed it yet,” said Ayo, who also suited up for Letran and played alongside former NCAA MVP Kerby Raymundo in 1999, when the Knights won an NCAA basketball title against Jose Rizal Univeristy in a fight-marred championship series.
Meanwhile, Mapua ended its NCAA Season 91 crusade after tasting its first Final Four appearance since 2010.
“I want to thank Mapua because they motivated us. Actually, they provoked us,” Ayo shared.
Despite the losing effort, 7 players from the red-and-gold troop scored in double figures.
Biteng had 17 points with two rebounds and two assists for Mapua, while Menina and Nimes had 15 markers each. Carlos Isit pitched in 11 points, while Nieles and Justin Serrano combined for 20 points.
Oraeme, a frontrunner in the MVP race, amassed another double-double feat of 10 points and 25 rebounds.
Letran (91) – Cruz 24, Racal 19, Sollano 16, Nambatac 12, Quinto 10, Calvo 4. Apreku 3, Luib 3, Balanza 0, Publico 0.
Mapua (90) – Biteng 17, Nimes 15, Menina 15, Isit 11, Oraeme 10, Nieles 10, Serrano 10, Brana 2, Aguirre 0.
Quarter scores: 21-17, 45-42, 67-70, 91-90.
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