Knights dethrone Red Lions

    A DESTINY fulfilled against a dynasty-seeking team.

    Showing up with the biggest of hearts in the biggest of moments, upstart Letran dethroned fancied San Beda University last night, carving out a breathtaking 81-79 cliffhanger to bag the 95th NCAA basketball crown before a wild and roaring crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.

    Graduating skipper Jerrick Balanza sank a booming three-pointer that gave Letran a 79-73 lead with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter and the Knights, playing all-Filipino the entire season, held their ground the rest of the way to deny the Red Lions their fourth straight title win.

    The Red Lions went on a 6-2 run to pull to within 79-81 on an Evan Nelle triple in the last 12.0 seconds. San Beda gained possession on a jumpball call and had a chance to win the match and retain the title with 5.4 ticks left. But Nelle’s last-gasp three-point try was blocked by Balanza that sent the Letran faithful in frenzy and the crestfallen Lions’ gallery in anguish.

    The 6-foot-2 Balanza, who underwent a major brain surgery last year, delivered on his promise to lead the Knights back to the Promised Land, scoring a game-high 27 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists in his swan song.

    Bonbon Batiller, who missed what could have been the game-winning basket in Game 2 last Nov. 15, redeemed himself with 19 markers, five boards, and three dimes. Batiller and backup big man Christian Baligasay also played their final games for Letran.

    Renato Ular and Fran Yu, who was named finals MVP, also had nine and eight points, respectively, for the All-Filipino Knights, who won their first title since 2015 and 18th overall.

    San Beda saw what it envisioned as a perfect season end in heart-rending fashion.

    The Lions swept the elimination round with an 18-0 record and were bidding for a four-peat and their 12th crown in 14 years and 23rd overall.

    In front of 19,876 fans, Letran bounced back from its sorry 76-79 loss in Game 2 and closed out its best-of-3 titular showdown with its archrivals 2-1.

    In his first year calling the shots for the Intramuros-based Knights, coach Bonnie Tan said his squad overcame great odds to win it all.

    “There’s always a reason for everything. Iyon ang palagi kong sinasabi sa players ko para hindi sila ma-down and madala pa rin iyong momentum going into today’s game kasi iyong pagkatalo namin noong Game 2, madaming nagsabi na hindi na raw kami makakabangon. Mahirap pero walang impossible,” said Tan.

    “We had a lot of trials during the season. Iyong mga laban noong stepladder (semis), hindi naman ibinigay sa amin ng basta-basta. It carried us, iyong momentum going into this series playing a team like San Beda, which had an 18-0 record and defending champion,” he added.