This has to be one of the most unforgettable NCAA seasons of all time. Of its 91 years of existence, the NCAA has given us numerous classic seasons and games. This current basketball season, which will take a bow this week, is undoubtedly one of the finest.
What better finale to have than a San Beda-Letran title duel – one that reminds us of a traditional rivalry back in the old NCAA days. The Knights drew first blood in the best-of-three series after a heart-stopping 94-90 victory in Game 1. Game 2 is set tomorrow also at the Mall of Asia Arena. If the Red Lions force a rubber match, it would be on October 29.
But this season has not really been about San Beda-Letran. For the first time in recent NCAA history, we saw more than just two squads with a crack at the title. In fact, nearing the end of the double round elims, six teams were still in contention— San Beda, Letran, Mapua, Jose Rizal U, Arellano and Perpetual Help. Playoff games were needed to decide the Final Four squads.
Five-time defending champion San Beda was again the heavy favorite to win the title this year, with three of its big guns—Art Dela Cruz, Baser Amer and Ola Adeogun—still around. The Perpetual Help Altas, with last year’s MVP Scottie Thomp¬son and sensational rookie Bright Akhuetie, were expected to challenge the Lions for the crown. But surprisingly, they struggled in the second round and were eventually booted out by Letran in their second round meeting. The JRU Heavy Bombers, after a strong third-place finish in the pre-season tournament Fil-Oil Flying V Cup, were also among the top seeds, along with last year’s bridesmaids the Arellano Chiefs.
The biggest surprises were Letran and Mapua as both schools missed the Final Four last year. The Cardinals had an amazing second round run, which saw them dropping just one game, to San Beda. They almost pulled an upset in the semis over the Knights, losing only by a solitary point. A huge factor for MIT is Nigerian recruit and eventual season MVP Allwell Oraeme, who averaged an incredible 20.28 rebounds per game on top of 16.3 points and almost three blocks per outing.
But the Knights were the biggest overachievers this year. Lacking in size, first-year coach Aldrin Ayo whipped this guard-heavy team into an unforgiving full-court pressuring machine that terrorized all teams. The Muralla-based squad is led by the diminutive but deadly playmaker Mark Cruz. Dubbed as the “Ant Man”, Cruz has been outstanding in his final stint in the NCAA, leading the league in most triples made, and averaging close to 18 markers per game. The other notable Knights are Kevin Racal, Rey Nambatac, Mcjour Luib, Bong Quinto andJomari Sollano.
This season also saw a good number of spectacular players that could rival the best of the UAAP— Jiovanni Jalalon and Michael Salado of Arellano, Tey Teodoro and Paolo Pontejos of JRU, Josan Nimes and Darell Menina of MIT, Jonathan Grey of St. Benilde, Michael Calisaan, Jon Ortueste and Brad Guinto of San Sebastian, Shaq Alanes and Jean Ngui¬djol of LPU, and Sidney Onwubere and Francis Munsayac of EAC.
When the smoke cleared, the Knights and Red Lions—two of the NCAA’s winningest teams— were left to dispute the title. And the first match, as expected, was explosive—with 14 lead changes and five deadlocks.
San Beda found itself in an unfamiliar situation, after having coveted eight of the last nine championships. Behind 0-1, the Lions hope to extend the series with a win over a hungry and determined Letran crew tomorrow. First year San Beda mentor Jamike Jarin will once again rely on his deep bench and hope that his Big 3 show up in this must-win game.
Letran is chasing a 16th NCAA cage diadem, which it last won in 2005. San Beda hopes to extend its reign to six years to set a new record for the longest title run, and bring home its 20th crown.
Game 2 should be another fierce battle. Will the Knights end their nine-year drought or will the Red Lions’ dynasty live on?
What a classic season.