By Waylon Galvez
Nothing replaces the feeling of a first championship for the alma mater, but for Jerrick Balanza, his second title with the Knights ranks first on his list.
In his fifth and final year, the 6-foot-1 Balanza steered Letran to a stunning 81-79 victory in Game 3 over defending three-time champion San Beda in the NCAA Season 95 Finals Tuesday night at Mall of Asia Arena.
Balanza scored 27 points highlighted by a three-point shot late in the game. He then came up with a huge defensive stop against three-point shooting Evan Nelle in the dying seconds that sealed the victory and the title.
“Of course hindi ko makakalimutan yung unang championship with Letran,” Balanza, who had little sleep since celebration of the championship feat lasted until early morning Wednesday.
“Pero ngayon kasi, as team captain on my final year, iba yung pakiramdam. Napakasarap… sweetest for me. Final year ko and natulungan ko ang Letran na makapag-champion uli,” he added.
Balanza was a rookie when Letran captured the 2015 championship, a back-up to now PBA players Kevin Racal, Mark Cruz and Rey Nambatac, in beating San Beda that season also in Game 3.
This time, Balanza was the leader of Letran’s ‘Fab Five’ alongside Finals series MVP Fran Yu, fellow graduating player Bonbon Batiller, forward Jeo Ambohot and center Larry Muyang that gave Letran its 18th overall championship.
Aside from Balanza and Bataller, backup big man Christian Balagasay also played his final year.
Now comes the question of defending the hard-earned title.
Even with their departure, Balanza said the Knights would still be a competitive team since it has enough tools to win back-to-back titles for the first time since 1998 and 1999.
“Nandiyan pa naman sina Fran, si Larry and si Jeo, si Ato (Ular), King (Caralipio), Allen (Mina), Tommy Olivario, Kurt Reyson… of course iyung coaching staff led by coach Bonnie Tan,” said Balanza.
“May mga players din from Letran’s Team B na developed na, and probably may galing from the junior’s division. So sa tingin ko contender pa din ang Letran maski wala na kami.”
When the final buzzer sounded in Game 3, Balanza wept at midcourt, realizing all the sacrifice and hardships, including a brain surgery last year that forced him to miss majority of the previous season.
Tan, in his first season with the Knights said he has nothing but admiration and respect for Balanza.
“Wala ako masabi sa leadership ng batang yan. Sakripisyo, anything for the team gagawin niya lahat. I’m happy that his final college year ended with a championship for Letran,” said Tan.
A bonfire was held at the campus grounds at the old gymnasium, which is under construction. Balanza led the celebration, but it was during the team dinner when Letran alumni Alfrancis Chua made the announcement on behalf of team backer, San Miguel Corp. boss Ramon S. Ang.
A source refused to divulge the amount that ‘RSA’ gave to the players, but it was in “six figures” for each player. This is the first year fir the food-beverage company to support the basketball team of Letran.