By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

THE Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights are back at the summit in men’s basketball of the National Collegiate Athletic Association after four years, taking the Season 95 title with an 81-79 victory over erstwhile defending champions San Beda University Red Lions in their do-or-die Game Three on Tuesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Forced to a sudden death by the Lions with a Game Two loss, the Knights showed the needed composure and grit to overcome the tough stand of San Beda and win the title.

It was the 18th NCAA crown for Letran but first since Season 91.

The teams slugged it out to begin the contest, angling to set the tone for their respective causes.

But San Beda would create some separation, 17-9, midway on the lead of league most valuable player Calvin Oftana and veteran Clint Doliguez.

The Knights though finished the opening quarter on a flurry as graduating player Jerrick Balanza waxed hot.

Letran outscored San Beda, 17-7, the rest of the way to go on top, 26-24, at the end of the first canto.

At the start of the second frame the Knights continued to pour it in, stretching their lead to 11 points, 37-26, by the 6:30 mark.

The Lions would manage to tie the count at 37-all in the next four minutes.

Letran, however, would finish the frame strong anew, going on a 7-1 run to build a 44-38 advantage at the break.

The third frame got to a fiery start with the two teams getting early baskets.

Letran maintained a safe distance of 55-45 with five minutes remaining.

San Beda then went on a 6-0 blast, to pull itself to within four points, 55-51, a minute later.

Momentum swung back-and-forth after eventually settling at a count of 69-59 in favor of the Knights heading into the final quarter.

Sensing that the Knights were having their way, the Lions began the fourth with more bite.

They opened things with a 7-0 run, with Oftana and Donald Tankoua leading the charge, to narrow their deficit to 69-66 with 6:09 to play.

Larry Muyang stopped the bleeding for Letran with a deuce inside the paint to make it 71-66.

But San Beda was undeterred, scoring back-to-back points to pull to within a point, 71-70, with 4:30 remaining.

The Knights kept their head above water, 73-70, after two made free throws from Balanza with 3:20 to go.

San Beda tried to claw its way back in the next minute and had solid chances but could not complete them.

Making matters worse for the Lions, Ato Ular made it a six-point lead for Letran, 76-70, with an and-one play with 2:06 left.

Doliguez got back the three points with a trey with 1:40 to go only to be answered by Balanza 11 seconds later to reestablish a six-point cushion, 79-73.

Evan Nelle pushed the Lions to within three points anew, 79-76, with a triple with 43 ticks remaining.

The Lions’ defense forced the Knights to a backcourt violation after.

They, however, could not capitalize on it as their three-point attempt in the ensuing play failed to hit the mark.

Letran guard Fran Yu was fouled by James Canlas with 15 seconds left.

He made both of his charities to make it a five-point lead, 81-76.

San Beda called timeout after to set up a play.

Off the lull, Nelle hit a trey to make it 81-79 with 12 seconds left.

San Beda kept the pressure on Letran, forcing a jumped ball on Yu with five seconds to go.

Compounding the woes of the Knights, Yu suffered leg cramps and had to be carried off the floor.

Possession arrow pointed to San Beda.

The Lions though could not convert a basket after as time expired, preserving the win and handing the title to Letran.

Balanza led the Knights in his final NCAA game with 27 points and seven rebounds.

Fellow graduating player Bonbon Batiller finished with 19 points.

Finals MVP Yu, meanwhile, had eight points, seven assists and five rebounds.

For San Beda it was Tankoua who showed the way with 22 points, followed by Oftana with 18.

The loss prevented the Lions from completing an NCAA four-peat.

“There is a reason for everything. There was a reason there was a Game Three. When we lost in Game Two many said we could not recover from it. We just stayed positive and played hard and we won,” said Letran coach Bonnie Tan after their championship win.

A total crowd of 19,876 witnessed Game Three of the finals live at MOA Arena.