On Tuesday, the inspirational Letran captain played the game of his life and capped his collegiate career with an improbable crown, leading the Knights in a crusade many thought was doomed at the start.
Balanza knocked in the curcial trey and then came up with the key defensive stop as Letran knocked powerful San Beda from its throne, 81-79, in the deciding Game 3 of the NCAA men’s basketball finals at Mall of Asia Arena.
“People doubted we could win Game 3, but as the captain of this team, I motivated ourselves to win,” said Balanza.
There was reason to doubt, after all.
The defending champion Red Lions, on the hunt for a fourth straight crown, roared their way to an 18-0 record, feasting on the opposition by a winning margin close to 20 points a game. And while San Beda sharpened its claws while waiting for a championship opponent, Letran needed to survive a stepladder semifinal scrap to reach the finals.
Once there, though, the Knights did not only defang the Lions. They rendered them toothless.
Balanza swished his fifth three of the night for a six-point cushion, 79-73, 1:29 remaining. A wild exchange saw San Beda’s Evan Nelle hit a three from way out, his second in the last 32 ticks, after two Letran free throws from Fran Yu—and the Lions gaining possession by forcing a jump ball with a shade over five seconds remaining.
But Balanza came to the rescue anew, blocking Evan Nelle’s jumper before Letran’s King Caralipio collared the leather at the buzzer, allowing the Knights to seal their 18th crown overall.
Pandemonium broke loose as the entire Letran bench dashed to the middle of the floor, hugged each other and jumped for joy in a celebration witnessed by 19,876 fans.
“It was difficult defeating San Beda; but nothing is impossible,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan, who was named coach of the year. “We just believed in ourselves that we could do it.”
Graduating guard Edson Batiller, who shone with 19 points, suffered from cramps after that Balanza triple and was carried to the bench.
A few seconds later, Fran Yu also hurt his leg and was escorted out of the court.
Yu went on to seize the Finals MVP after averaging 13 points throughout the best-of-three series.
“All we thought about coming into this game was to win the championship,” said Yu, who led the Knights in the stepladder semifinals and the first two games of the finals. “We never gave up and we were rewarded.”
The Knights completely tore down the Lions’ wall of invincibility in Game 1, lost in Game 2 after Batiller muffed a potential game-winning layup and were declared goners in Game 3 against a deep and talented San Beda crew.
But Balanza never wavered in his faith. Having survived a brain tumor, basketball became a much easier challenge.
“Game 3 is still ours,” Balanza said after that close Game 2 defeat.
He proved more than just prophetic. He made sure the outcome would be just that as he pulled the curtains down on a collegiate career with another championship, after his 2015 triumph as a rookie. Letran, then under coach Aldin Ayo, also pulled the rug from under a favored San Beda squad that year.
“I prepared myself mentally for this game,” Balanza said. “I didn’t want to end my collegiate career with a defeat so I kept reminding my teammates that we cannot lose Game 3. It all boiled down to the team that wanted it most. It was pure desire that helped us win.”
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