Collegio de San Juan de Letran booked a return trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Division Finals after foiling a huge fight from Mapua Institute of Technology, 91-90, in the Season 91 on Tuesday, at the Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay.
The All-Filipino Knights are now back in the NCAA Finals, which also highlights rookie Coach Aldin Ayo’s maiden Finals appearance as head coach of Letran in the oldest collegiate league in the Philippines.
It was the big fourth quarter baskets from the Muralla-based squad that settled the backbreaking ballgame basically, and once again, it was “The Ant-Man” who triggered the deluge late in the stretch.
The PBA-bound, and triple-trouble weapon Mark Cruz delivered 24 points, one of which was a spitfire shot that moved Letran ahead at 87-83 inside the fading two minutes of the semifinal face-off.
But the Mapua Cardinals gave the Knights something to sweat for first though, before the Letran faithful could cheer their “Arriba!” hearts out.
Mapua landed a stronghold throughout the match as the Season host squad did not even let Letran widen the lead to a two-digit gap.
Yet the Knights continued to imply their so-called “scattered defense” expertise and sparked the next points for a 79-76 advance, courtesy of what seemed a tall move from Mark Cruz after he shot a layup past Mapua’s tower of power Allwell Oraeme.
Coach Atoy Co’s dribblers simply would not give up so easily and they sank a game-tying basket to knot the cards at 81, but then again, the “Arriba!” spirit of Letran emerged and the Knights tapped on Kevin Racal to break free of the threatening tie.
Letran then had a tight grip on its lead en route to the final seconds of the final canto, and Mapua’s CJ Isit sent a triple down the basket to hold on for dear life, but still fell short as the clock went off after his three-pointer.
The long journey of Mapua this Season 91 has been an interesting one, as the Cardinals endured being one of the bottom five teams in the first round, then shocked everyone when they opened the second round of eliminations with a win-streak bang.
Alongside Mark Cruz, two Knights tallied a double-double aftermath. Kevin Racal scored 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Rey Nambatac added 12 markers and 11 boards for Letran.
On the other hand, Exequiel Biteng led Mapua with 17 points, while Darrell Menina and CJ Isit added 15 and 11 points, respectively for the Cardinals.
Final player Josan Nimes scored 15 points in his last hurrah as a Mapua Cardinal, while Allwell Oraeme capped off Season 91 with 10 points.
Letran Knights (91) — Cruz 24, Racal 19, Sollano 16, Nambatac 12, Quinto 10, Calvo 4, Apreku 3, Luib 3, Balanza 0, Publico 0.
Mapua Cardinals (90) — Biteng 17, Nimes 15, Menina 15, Isit 11, Oraeme 10, Nieles 10, Serrano 10, Brana 2, Aguirre 0.