Dethroned: Knights end the Lions’ reign

After a decade of dominance at the top of the NCAA, the San Beda Red Lions were dethroned by the Collegio de San Juan de Letran Knights, 85-82, in overtime of Game 3 of the NCAA Season 91 Finals at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay city.

With the Lions miraculously coming back from an eight-point grave in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime, the Knights, trailing by a point, 82-81, with 1:11 remaing in the extra-period, snatched the lead from San Beda courtesy of young big man Jomari Sollano who scored four of Letran’s last three points of the game on a jumpshot and a freethrow to capture Letran’s 17th basketball title.

“Buo ‘yung loob ni Jom”, said Finals MVP Mark Cruz who assisted on the Sollano go-ahead basket with 32 seconds left in the game.

“Iniisip ko nalang, bahala na si God (at) may tiwala rin naman ako sa sarili ko” Sollano said on the shot.

“Buo ‘yung tiwala ko sa sarili ko”, added the lanky Cebuano power forward.

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Photo by Richard Esguerra/ Sports Gateway PH

In the first quarter, after San Beda started the game 3-6,  Letran, sparked by six points from Sollano, unleased a 15-3 run to create some much needed separation from the Lions to lead by nine points, 18-9, at the 1:38 mark. After a Radge Tongco drive and a Donald Tankoua freethrow, Rey Nambatac then beat the quarter buzzer to end the first period 20-12.

A John Calvo jumper to open the second quarter posted Letran’s biggest lead of the game at 10 points but a 12-4 rally from San Beda cut the lead to just two, 24-26. Veterans Kevin Racal and Art Dela Cruz’s exchange of three-pointers at the 5:58 mark set the tone for the next three minutes as both squads traded shot per shot until a 7-0 run from San Beda capped by a Dan Sara three-pointer at the 1:14 mark gave the Lions a one-point lead, 38-39. It was short lived, however, as two Nambatac freethrows to close the quarter saw the lead go back to Letran, 40-39, at the end of the first half.

Kevin Racal led the way for the Knights at halftime with 12 points on a 4-of-10 shooting clip while Jomari Sollano had 10 points and five rebounds. Art Dela Cruz’s 10 points, six rebounds and four assists kept San Beda afloat after giving up eight turnovers and 11 turnover points in the first two quarters.

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Photo by Alex Alferez/ Sports Gateway PH

The two teams continued to trade baskets in the third quarter as a Rey Nambatac floater, Dan Sara jumpshot, a Nambatac three-pointer and a Javee Mocon follow-up opened the first two minutes of the period. A converted Mocon and-one saw the lead switch to San Beda, 46-45, at the 6:51 mark until a jumper from Jomari Sollano gave the lead back to Letran but was then followed by an Art Dela Cruz floater to change the lead again. Two consecutive baskets from Sollano then saw the score in Letran’s advantage, as they were up by three points 51-48, with 4:59 remaining in the quarter but four consecutive points from Mocon again swung the lead to San Beda, 51-52, three minutes later. Letran closed the quarter, however, with a Felix Apreku freethrow and a Kier Quinto baseline jumper to settle the final score of a third quarter that saw six lead changes at 54-52.

A Mark Cruz pull-up jumper on the fastbreak that opened the fourth quarter was then followed by three offensive rebounds by San Beda off two Baser Amer missed three-pointers on the other side of the court that then led to a Sara three-bomb. A Rey Publico floater in the next possesion followed a skirmish between Art Dela Cruz and Mark Cruz who both fell down trying to box-out for the rebound. Cruz was whistled an unsportsmanlike foul penalty one and Dela Cruz converted one of two freethrows to put the score at 58-56, with a 7:45 to play. Back-to-back Racal three-bombs pushed the lead to eight for Letran, 64-56, at the 6:09 mark, prompting a Red Lions timeout.

Sensing urgency, San Beda floor general Baser Amer started to become more aggressive on offense and hit an and-one layup off a spin-move on the fast break to spark an 11-5 run that was capped by a floater and a step-back three-pointer from him to cut the lead to two, 69-67, with 2:55 to play. A tightly contested Kevin Racal three-pointer to beat the shot clock buzzer and another three from Cruz then pushed Letran to seemingly the brink of the championship as they put the Lions in an eight-point grave, 75-67, with 1:53 to play, prompting another timeout from San Beda.

San Beda then unleashed a desperation 8-0 comeback rally– courtesy of their Big 3 of Dela Cruz, who hit a floater at the 1:47 mark; Amer, who scored on a fastbreak layup with 1:25 remaining; and Adeogun who converted on a layup with 25 seconds remaining– capped by an Amer layup off a steal from McJour Luib to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining. Letran had a chance to win it but a Racal three-pointer fell short and the game went to overtime.

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Photo by Alex Alferez/ Sports Gateway PH

To open the scoring in overtime, Mcjour Luib, trying to make up for his turnover in the final moments of the fourth quarter, had a steal of his own and converted on a fastbreak layup but two Javee Mocon freethrows tied the game again. Cruz, despite already cramping up, then skied for an offensive rebound and converted on a reverse layup putback but Adeogun tied the game once again at the other end of the floor at the 2:41 mark with the scare at 79-all.

Mocon went to the charity stripe again and only converted one but an Amer floater pushed the lead to three, 79-82, with 1:25 to go. Two Racal freethrows cut the lead to a point before Jom Sollano’s game-winning jumper proved to get Letran over the hump. San Beda had chances to take the lead back an Amer drive at the 26-second mark and a Dela Cruz floater at the 12-second mark both resulted into misses. Sollano was fouled after getting ahold of the basketball and converted the first bonus shot. On the second freethrow, however, referees whistled a double-lane violation and with the possession arrow pointing to Letran’s side, consequentially gave the Knights another possession where Cruz was fouled and hit a freethrow. Cruz missed the freethrow and San Beda rebounded but Micole Sorela’s halfcourt desperation heave only hit the back rim.

Photo by Alex Alferez/ Sports Gateway PH
Photo by Alex Alferez/ Sports Gateway PH

Letran’s star seniors had standout performances in their last game as Knights as Kevin Racal, who played 39 minutes, topscored for the Knights with 23 points to go along with five rebounds while team captain Mark Cruz, who played 36 minutes with leg cramps nagging him in the fourth quarter and overtime, tallied an all-around game of 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Jom Sollano had the game of his life with a career-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds while sophomore forward Rey Nambatac chipped in 13 points for the Knights.

The 5-foot-5 Cruz capped his college career by being named the Finals series’ MVP after averaging 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.0 steals.

“Laban lang, puso. ‘Yun lang yung naging power namin para magawa ‘to”, Cruz said.

San Beda’s own star seniors played gallantly in a losing effort as Art Dela Cruz played his last game for the Red Lions with 15 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists while Baser Amer had 14 points on a salty 6-of-20 shooting clip to go along with seven assists. Ola Adeogun chipped in with a double-double performance of his own with 13 points and ten rebounds.

SCORES:

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

San Beda: Dela Cruz 15, Amer 14, Mocon 14, Adeogun 13, Sara 9, Tankoua 6, Koga 5, Tongco 4, Soberano 2, Solera 0, Cabanag 0, Sedillo 0, Presbitero 0.