By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE best-of-three National Collegiate Athletic Association Season 95 men’s basketball championship series is down to one last game today with the defending champions San Beda Red Lions and the Letran Knights battling it out in Game Three at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Forced to a sudden death after the Lions staved off being dethroned with a gutsy 79-76 victory on Nov. 15, the series now see the protagonists out to give their all in the scheduled 4 p.m. contest for the right to be hailed as kings of hoops in the ongoing season of the country’s oldest collegiate league.
Much like in the series opener, Game Two of the NCAA Finals was nip-and-tuck and the outcome decided only in the closing moments of the game.
San Beda had a fiery start only to be caught by Letran in the second half.
Down the stretch the Knights had their chances to close out the series, including a potential go-ahead basket by Bonbon Batiller in the dying seconds, but could not complete them, sending the finals joust to a do-or-die.
James Canlas paced the Lions with 21 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists while league most valuable player Calvin Oftana had a double-double of 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Veteran Clint Doliguez also finished with 17 points.
Severely tested anew after going spotless in the elimination round, San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez said he was very relieved that they were able to survive and expressed hope that they get to sustain, if not improve on, its clutch composure in today’s game.
“We are relieved that we got this win. It was not easy as Letran really came out prepared,” said Mr. Fernandez after their Game Two victory.
“I salute my players also. They really wanted to prove something today and that’s what character is. We had a loss, and everybody was against us, but the players didn’t really want to lose,” he added.
While rued the missed opportunity last time around to become NCAA champions anew after four years, the Knights said they are moving on and vowed to get the job done in Game Three.
Guard Fran Yu had Letran very much in the thick of the fight until leg cramps made him miss the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. His leadership and shot-making were sorely missed by Knights.
Yu top-scored for Letran with 23 points and five assists, with big man Larry Muyang finishing with 17 points and 10 boards.
Batiller, meanwhile, added 11 points.
Letran coach Bonnie Tan said post-Game Two that they will continue to play hard and give the Lions a tough challenge like in the previous two games, and hope it is enough to win them the NCAA title.
San Beda is looking for NCAA title number 23, and 11th in the last 13 years, while Letran is seeking its 18th title.