MANILA, Philippines -- Jerrick Balanza always knew that the NCAA Season 95 championship was theirs for the taking, even after the Letran Knights absorbed a close 78-76 loss against the San Beda Red Lions in Game 2 of the series.
The Knights were raring to celebrate their first title since 2015 but the Red Lions had other ideas, winning Game 2 in thrilling fashion to force a decider. But Balanza, the graduating team captain, had no doubts that Game 3 was theirs.
"Ako tinatanaw ko nang positibo 'to, kasi pinapasarap lang 'to ni Lord. Sa amin pa rin 'to. Sa amin pa rin ang Game 3," said Balanza last Friday.
Balanza proved to be a man of his word. In his final collegiate game, he fired 27 points in leading the Knights to another heartstopping win against San Beda, 81-79. He drained a huge three-pointer with 1:29 left that kept them in control of the game, and made the game-sealing block on Evan Nelle in the Red Lions' final possession.
Afterward, Balanza was caught up in his emotions, and made sure to let the Letran crowd that packed the Mall of Asia Arena know how much he appreciated them.
"Sa Letran community, wala na akong masabi kundi sobrang salamat talaga sa pag-support nila sa amin, sa paniniwala," he said after the game.
The game was a fitting finish to what had been an eventful year for Balanza. He missed out on a bulk of Letran's campaign in Season 94 after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and could only watch as the Knights went out in the Final 4 last year.
But he knew that he was destined to end his NCAA career as a champion. He had gone through too much for him to finish it any other way.
"Sa amin naman talaga 'to, simula pa lang," Balanza said of the Season 95 crown. "Vision ko na, na pagbalik ko, magcha-champion kami, kasi 'yun ang pinakamagandang plano ni God sa akin and sa team."
"So 'yun, tingnan mo nga, nangyari," he beamed.
That he played such a big role in ensuring their victory was just icing on the cake for Balanza. He was unstoppable in Game 3, making 7 of his 15 shots including 5 three-pointers. He also had 7 rebounds and 3 assists -- including crucial dimes to Larry Muyang and Allen Mina to end the first and second quarters, respectively.
"Talagang naniwala lang ako na mananalo kami, naniwala ako sa sarili ko," said Balanza. "'Yung Game 2, almost eh. Pero makikita mo, doon pa lang, sa amin talaga."
"Kaya pinaninindigan namin as a team itong Game 3," he said.
There can be no better exit for Balanza, who just last year wondered if he could even play basketball again. And for him, there can be no better expression of gratitude for the school and the community that rallied around him in his time of need.
"Ito na 'yung ginawang way para mapasalamatan ko sila. Hindi ko man sila mapasalamatan isa-isa, ito na siguro 'yung ginawang way ni God," he said.
"Isa ding paraan na pasalamatan ko sila is ipagdasal sila, and ito, champion namin, ito 'yung pinakamadiin na pasasalamat ko sa kanila," he also said.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.