Nobody from Letran’s unyielding core was considered for a mythical selection in the men’s basketball tourney of NCAA Season 95.
But instead of retreating in a corner and licking their wounds, the Knights were fired up by that exclusion and worked their way to the award that mattered the most.
“We didn’t have anybody in the mythical team, but the championship trophy is the best award that this team has received,” Letran coach Bonnie Tan said.
The Knights downed the “four-peat” seeking San Beda Red Lions, 81-79, in the Game 3 finale of their titular showdown on Tuesday mostly fueled by grit and guts with a sprinkling of lucky breaks in the end.
Except for ace point guard Fran Yu, the most improved player and Finals MVP, no one from the Letran roster got an individual accolade this season—a stark contrast to San Beda’s near sweep of the season awards.
San Beda’s Calvin Oftana was the season MVP and joined teammates Evan Nelle and James Canlas in the mythical five along with Lyceum’s Jaycee Marcelino and San Sebastian’s Allyn Bulanadi.
“I don’t really care about the individual awards. What’s important is that we were able to give something more precious to the school and to the entire Letran community,” said team captain Jerrick Balanza.
Firing 27 points on his final game, Balanza ended his collegiate career the way he started it five years ago when the Knights defeated the Red Lions in the 2015 NCAA Finals.
“I couldn’t ask for more. There is no experience better than this. I just stayed positive even after that Game 2 defeat and believed that we will become champions,” Balanza said.
Joining him in search of luck in the professional ranks are graduating Knights Bonbon Batiller, 6-foot-8 Christian Balagasay and Tommy Olivario.
Balanza found a second lease on life after recovering from a touch-and-go surgery to remove a brain tumor and led a cast of standouts who found their own second chances with Letran.
Batiller, a brutish swingman from General Santos City, was picked up by the Knights after a forgettable career with the UE Warriors in the UAAP along with Yu, his UE teammate who was also given the boot.
“Fran and I thought our careers were over. Letran gave us a chance to prove ourselves and we did not let the school down,” said Batiller, who almost won the championship for the Knights in Game 2 if not for a slippery handle on the leather underneath the rim with 5.4 seconds left.
It was the second NCAA seniors crown for the Knights in five years—18th overall in the league.
The celebration, however, will continue to simmer even after this season is over as Letran celebrates its 400th year as host of NCAA Season 96.
“It will be a good motivation for us to defend the title next year,” Yu said.
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