The 95th Season of the NCAA seniors basketball tournament boils down to one final game as the San Beda Red Lions and the Letran Knights figure in a winner-take-all Game 3 on Tuesday.
There has been no shortage of excitement in the finals, highlighted by thrilling turning points and late-game heroics.
The Knights stunned San Beda in the first game with a 65-64 victory, handing the Red Lions their first loss of the season. The defending champions came out more aggressive in Game 2 and managed to hack out a 79-76 win. It's anybody's ball game at this point and a shot at history awaits the winner. Letran is gunning for its 18th school title and its first since 2015 while San Beda takes aim for its fourth straight championship and 23rd overall.
Before the finals conclude, here's a closer look of the series so far.
Just how close has this series been?
The Knights played tremendous defense for 40 minutes and escaped a Calvin Oftana shot towards the end of Game 1. Fran Yu got the all-important rebound after the MVP missed with 2.4 seconds left. And even though Yu missed his two charity shots, the Knights secured the board once again. The key for stat in Game 1 was San Beda's atrocious 6-for-40 3-point shooting. The Red Lions were the number one team from beyond the arc during the regular season but couldn't find their range against the Knights. It also didn't help that first seed San Beda was coming off a nearly month-long hiatus.
Faced with a sense of desperation, the Red Lions came out determined and scored Game 2's first 15 points while holding the Knights scoreless in nearly six minutes. But the Knights showed just how resilient they can be, especially in the third quarter. Yu fired 14 of his 23 points in the third before cramping up in the final frame.
In the fourth, Oftana delivered as he got an and-1 opportunity with 19.1 seconds in the back-and-forth contest. On the other end, Bonbon Batiller's reverse layup couldn't find the bottom of the net and San Beda was able to hold on.
Who will be the X-factor for each team?
Letran mainstay Jerrick Balanza has been oddly quiet in the finals. In Game 1, he only had 10 points on nine shot attempts followed by a 9-point performance in Game 2. Balanza has been the team's go-to-guy throughout the season and his production in Game 3 will be critical. San Beda has been doing a good job in limiting Balanza's looks but it's up to the versatile swingman to be aggressive and take over.
For the Red Lions, the missing piece for them so far is Evan Nelle's playmaking. After averaging 6.7 assists during the elimination round, the sophomore guard had one assist in Game 1 and three assists in Game 2. Nelle is the engine that keeps the San Beda offense humming. Even when he doesn't credit for a particular assist, his ability to set up the offense is what makes him a threat at the point guard position.
Who will be the finals MVP?
Fran Yu has been the man of the NCAA playoffs. He was instrumental in Letran's wins against San Sebastian and Lyceum he continues to be fearless in the finals.
Yu's Game 2 third quarter was a masterpiece and he could have easily reach 30-plus points if it wasn't for cramps. His outside shots were momentum-shifters as the Knights were making a huge run to get back into the game. The pint-sized guard is also a relentless rebounder, often getting the game's most important rebounds in the clutch. Yu is the cornerstone of Letran's championship bid.
On the other side, Calvin Oftana can cement his place as this season's top player if he can lead San Beda to the title with a signature performance. Oftana's A-game will be needed especially if big man Donald Tankoua gets into foul trouble or if Nelle can't get the offense going. The league MVP has been playing well, coming off a 17-point, 11-rebound Game 2, including the go-ahead basket. If he can get to his average numbers, as well as produce late in the game, the Red Lions can win it all.