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Balanza's comeback ends with Letran's title win

Letran's Jerrick Balanza came back from a brain tumor to lead Letran this season to a title. Ernie Sarmiento/ESPN5

A year ago, Letran's Jerrick Balanza was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to miss the tail end of NCAA Season 94. The diagnosis came in September of 2018 and Balanza thought his playing days were over.

Fourteen months later, Balanza delivered an unforgettable performance in Letran's 81-79 win over rival San Beda to win his second title and to put a storybook ending on his college career.

"My teammates believed in me," Balanza said. "After Game 2, some of them were so down. They thought we couldn't win in Game 3. But me as the captain, I need to carry them to play well in Game 3."

Balanza turned it up in the waning moments of the win and didn't buckle under pressure. He carried his team in toppling the three-time defending champions. After all, the biggest challenge he faced was already past him.

After the operation to remove the tumor late in 2018, Balanza was cleared to play by December. He was grateful for the fresh opportunity to play the game he loves. By January, he started practicing with Letran, training two or three times a day to get back in shape and keep up with his teammates.

"They said I would feel pressured when I returned," Balanza said during the early part of the season. "All the pressure probably left my body already after what I went through. That's really how I look at it, so every game I just go out there and enjoy. If we're trailing late, it's OK, just enjoy it."

Balanza's hard work paid off. The team captain put up 27 points, including a pivotal 3-pointer with a little over a minute remaining in Game 3. Balanza also produced the game-winning block to seal the victory for the Knights.

"This was really ours. When I came back, I already envisioned that we were going to win the championship because that was God's plan for me and for the team. Now it finally happened," Balanza said in Filipino.

Balanza's confidence and maturity were on display on Tuesday as he gave Letran its 18th school championship. After going through the comeback, winning another title for his alma mater was a fulfilling reward.

"Being a Letranite is such a great feeling. Nothing compares," said Balanza. "I'll always come back. I may not be able to thank each and everyone but this is probably God's way."