MANILA, Philippines – A series that has already featured two cardiac games will fittingly go the distance on Tuesday, when San Beda University and Colegio de San Juan de Letran meet for the final time in the NCAA Season 95 men's basketball tournament.
The deciding game of the best-of-3 series is set for 4 p.m. at the MOA Arena, with the winner emerging as the year's champions.
It has been a tremendously well-fought series between the bitter rivals, as Letran dispelled fears of a lopsided finals after San Beda's 18-game sweep of the elimination round. The Knights immediately fired a warning shot in Game 1, hacking out a 65-64 win to end the Red Lions' winning streak.
"One game pa lang, pero we're happy for that win," said Letran coach Bonnie Tan after the victory, which was San Beda's first defeat since August 2018.
Tan expressed his hope that the Knights could wrap up the series in Game 2, although he knew very well that the Red Lions would come out strong in an attempt to bounce back from their loss. True enough, San Beda opened the second game with 15 unanswered points, and appeared headed for a blowout win.
Fran Yu, however, refused to let that happen. The diminutive guard exploded for 14 points in the third quarter alone, helping the Knights turn the game into a back-and-forth affair. But a bad case of cramps forced him to leave the contest with over 3 minutes left, and San Beda's Calvin Oftana willed his team to a 79-76 win.
"We played (with) all heart. Ayaw namin matalo, gusto pa namin mag-training, siyempre," said Oftana, who received the MVP trophy ahead of the game.
"We really want to prove something today, and that’s what character is. We had a loss, everybody is all against us. But the players really don’t want to lose eh," said San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez.
They battle again for all the marbles on Tuesday, with the Knights eyeing to duplicate their feat in 2015 – when they spoiled the Red Lions' bid for a sixth consecutive crown by winning their finals series that also went three games.
That was Letran's first title in a decade, before San Beda uncorked a run of three straight championships.
Letran graduating team captain Jerrick Balanza, one of the few players left from the Season 91 title team, is confident of a victory.
"Masaya ako na ito 'yung last game ko, kasi confident ako na sa amin 'yun," he said. "Sa amin 'to, talaga."
San Beda, meanwhile, will try to annex a fourth straight title and their 23rd overall, while getting back at their rivals for that heartbreak.
"We'll enjoy this one," said Fernandez after Game 2. "And we'll check the tapes tonight, review all the tapes that Letran played, especially Fran Yu. And we'll see what will be the focal point in our practice."
Fernandez is going for his fifth title as San Beda's head coach, having steered the team to the crowns in Seasons 89 and 90 before taking over again ahead of Season 93. This is only the second time, though, that he will have to guide the Red Lions in a Game 3.
The first time it happened was in 2013 – when they had to outlast Raymond Almazan and the Letran Knights to claim the Season 89 title.
Between that series and their thrilling games in this year's finals, Fernandez has gained an appreciation for playing their archrivals in the biggest stage.
"It's really nice to play Letran. I really love playing Letran," he said. "Whoever wins that game on Tuesday deserves it."
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