Night of shining Knights: Lions’ reign ends in wringer of a thriller

Joey Villar (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Letran’s shining Knights exploded with crucial treys, imploded when victory was within grasp then rode on sheer heart and will in the grinding extra period to dethrone the San Beda Red Lions, 85-82, for the NCAA men’s crown in a Game Three that will be long remembered for the shifting fortunes they went through before a record crowd of 20,158 at the MOA Arena last night.

It was a championship like no other, a sudden death that went through a thousand deaths as the Knights and the Red Lions spilled guts and blood for the fiercely fought showdown of the best in the league.

For 40 minutes and five more in overtime, the Knights and the Lions tore at each other with no team yielding under tremendous pressure in the seesawing battle that left the diehards of the two squads soar with school spirits and limp with emotions spent in the end.

Letran finally broke a 10-year stay in NCAA limbo as it nailed its first title since 2005 and foiled San Beda’s drive for a record sixth straight championship by taking the best-of-three series, 2-1.

The Knights squandered an eight-point spread in the last two minutes of regulation as the Lions leaned on their champions heart to turn the tide around and forced extension with the reigning titlists riding the momentum that the Knights lost in a blink of an eye.

It was contest that produced heroes at every turn with Kevin Racal’s triples keeping the Knights in control in regulation and Mark Cruz and Jomari Sollano making the decisive points in overtime as the Muralla-based squad battled back from three points in the closing minute with a six-point finishing kick while holding the Lions scoreless down the stretch.

When Michole Sorela threw a desperation heave from near halfcourt and missed its target at the buzzer, the Knights and their horde of fans went into a frenzied celebration as confettis rained down the midcourt.

Letran coach Aldin Ayo went to his wife, hugged her and then shed tears of joy at the back of the venue near the locker rooms.

The Knights just became the Cinderella story of the NCAA.

Letran coach Aldin Ayo raises his arms in triumph as he gets a victory ride after steering the Knights to an epic Game 3 win over the San Beda Red Lions. JOEY MENDOZA JR

“This is big for the Letran community because we were not expecting this,” said Ayo, who became the first rookie coach to win a title since Boyet Fernandez did the trick for San Beda two years ago.

Racal fired a game-high 23 points, including nine in regulation when he gave Letran a big cushion to weather San Beda’s fiery fightback.

Cruz, for his part, had 14 points including eight in regulation and three in OT. He capped his exploits with a drive where he drew San Beda’s defense before dishing off an assist to an open Sollano, who hit a clutch baseline jumper that gave the Knights the lead for good.

That play also sealed Cruz’s claim to Finals MVP trophy as he averaged 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and three steals.

“I just want to win a championship, this Finals MVP is just a trophy,” said Cruz.

Letran’s victory also ended the Lions’ long reign that had San Beda making it to 10 straight finals and winning eight for a record 19 overall.

Sources said Letran team manager Manny Pacquiao promised to give each Knight P100,000 each.

Pacquiao also provided some luck for the Knights as he also joined the Letran bench in Game One, which they won, 94-90. The boxing icon missed Game Two which San Beda took, 68-61.

San Beda actually had a chance to force a second extension as Sollano missed the last end of his charities with Letran hanging on to an 84-82 edge with 6.7 seconds.

But McJour Luib deliberately baited the Lions to go inside prematurely for a rebound hoping for a Sollano miss.

Sollano did miss, forcing a jump and giving Letran the possession anew.

“It’s his (Racal) plan,” said Cruz, who scored the season’s final point from the stripe before intentionally missing the second to seal the win for the Knights.

Racal and Sollano, who combined for 22 points in the first half, started out strong as the Knights built a 20-12 lead at the end of the opening quarter.

But the Lions fought back in the next quarter when they outscored the Knights and pulled within, 39-40, at the break.

It was a nip-and-tuck from there.

The scores:

Letran 85 – Racal 23, Sollano 19, Cruz 14, Nambatac 13, Luib 5, Publico 4, Quinto 4, Calvo 2, Apreku 1, Balanza 0.

San Beda 82 – Dela Cruz 15, Amer 14, Adeogun 13, Sara 9, Tankoua 6, Koga 5, Tongco 4, Soberano 2, Cabanag 0, Reyes 0, Presbiterio 0, Solera 0, Sedillo 0.

Quarterscores: 12-20, 40-39, 54-52, 75-all, 85-82 (OT)

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