MANILA, Philippines – University of Santo Tomas (UST) head coach Aldin Ayo offered his congratulations to Colegio de San Juan de Letran on Wednesday, after their remarkable triumph in the NCAA Season 95 men's basketball tournament.
The Knights completed a thrilling upset of rivals San Beda University in the best-of-3 finals, winning Game 3, 81-79, for their first championship since 2015. It was one of the biggest shockers in recent history, as the Red Lions were heavily favored following an 18-game sweep of the elimination round.
Instead, it was Letran that emerged triumphant, as the Knights duplicated their feat in Season 91 when an underdog team led by Ayo denied San Beda a sixth straight crown.
"Congratulations, especially to Jerrick (Balanza)," Ayo told reporters on Wednesday, in the wake of the conclusion of his own season with UST in the UAAP. "Alam naman natin kung ano dinaanan ng batang 'yun."
Balanza was just a rookie when Ayo coached Letran to the title in 2015, and on Tuesday, he powered the Knights to the crown by scoring 27 points in the do-or-die Game 3.
It was a storybook ending to Balanza's rollercoaster career in the NCAA. The veteran missed half of their campaign in 2018 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, but made a triumphant return this season. His positive outlook and leadership were major factors in the Knights' title run.
As happy as he is for the Knights, Ayo still hasn't forgotten the one message he has for Balanza – along with Christian Balagasay and Tommy Olivario, the other two graduating Letran players.
"Jerrick won two championships already, pero our main objective is for them to earn degrees. So they have to finish their courses," said Ayo.
"Ngayon, sa 2015 na team namin, halos 'yun na lang ang inaantay namin eh. Si Jerrick, si Tommy, tapos si Christian," he added. "Sana, matapos na nila, kasi doon mo masasabing champion talaga eh."
"Ibig sabihin, champion ka na sa basketball, at the same time champion ka pa sa academics, lahat nakapagtapos, magandang accomplishment 'yan."
Ayo was not as fortunate as his former team. The Growling Tigers bowed to Ateneo de Manila University in the finals of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament.
Still, to have made the finals is already a towering achievement for the Growling Tigers, considering how little fanfare they got entering the season. Ayo sees a bright future for his team, who survived three knockout games to make it to the championship phase for the first time since 2015.
"We always want to improve e. Last year, we ended up sixth. This year, we made it to the finals," said Ayo. "Our mindset is, even if we made it here, madami pa kaming kulang at dapat trabahuin. We'll make sure na 'yung experience namin, matututo kami."
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