By Waylon Galvez
Letran ace Jerrick Balanza made sure his final year with the Knights was a memorable one.
Balanza made key plays on both ends to help Letran dethrone the San Beda Red Lions in a riveting finish 81-79 in Game 3 of the NCAA Season 95 Finals last night at the rocking Mall of Asia Arena.
After missing most part of the previous season after he underwent brain surgery, Balanza drained a huge three-pointer shot that gave Letran a 79-73 lead with 1:29 left in the game.
San Beda trimmed the deficit 79-76 on Evan Nelle’s own triple with 43.2 seconds to go, putting pressure on the Knights.
Fran Yu, who missed the final three minutes of Game 2 due to cramps – the same problem he had late in Game 3 – made two pressure free throws for 81-76 with 15.9 seconds to play.
The Red Lions had one final roar left though.
Just when Yu was waiving at the San Beda crowd as if to bid them farewell, Nelle again drained a triple to make it a one-possession ball game 81-79, only 12 seconds remaining.
At that point, Bonbon Batiller and Yu – forced to a jump ball by San Bed’s season MVP Calvin Oftana – suffered cramps one after the other. Possession went to the Lions with 5.4 seconds left and the game in their hands for them to win and lose.
Here Balanza delivered defensively.
One of Letran’s graduating players, Balanza came through with a huge defensive stop against Nelle from top of the key.
Donald Tankoua recovered the loose ball, but the Cameroonian center failed to make a decent shot as the buzzer sounded, leading to wild celebration by the Knights and their supporters amid chants of “Arriba! Arriba! Arriba! Letranista!”
A total of 19,876 witnessed the final game of the season.
Letran’s victory ended a four-year title drought, or since the Knights stunned an equally talented San Beda squad during the 2015 season. It was the school’s 18th overall title in the NCAA.
The victory denied San Beda a fourth consecutive title – a disappointing finish to a season where the Red Lions had a perfect 18-0 record in the eliminations that propelled them to the Finals.
“It was difficult beating San Beda, but nothing is impossible,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan, who is in his first season with the Knights. “There’s always a reason why it happened (lost in Game 2).”
Balanza, who finished with 27 points, said it was their determination to recover from a Game 2 (79-76) defeat that propelled them to the championship – his second with the school since he was part of the 2015 squad as a rookie.
“People doubted that we can win in Game 3, but as the captain of this team, I have to carry and motivate the team,” said Balanza, who plans to turn pro this year and join the PBA Rookie Draft.
Yu, named the Finals MVP after averaging 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the series, finished with eight points, five rebounds and seven assists, while Batiller – also in his final year – had 19 points and five boards.
San Beda, which was denied a fourth straight title, got 22 points from Tankoua, while Oftana had 18 points. James Kwekuteye-Canlas, Clint Doliguez and Nelle each scored 11 points for the Lions.
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, 79-81.