Mark Cruz stands tall as Letran Knights turn back Mapua Cardinals to reach NCAA Season 91 Finals

LETRAN advanced to the NCAA Season 91 men’s basketball finals, hitting big baskets late in the game and holding off Mapua, 91-90, on Tuesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Mark Cruz scored 24 points as the Knights, including a huge basket that gave Letran an 87-83 lead with 1:31 left in the fourth quarter.

Down 85-88, the Cardinals could not hit the most important shots, notably the three-point attempt by Exi Biteng that would have tied the game.

The  shot was almost halfway in before rolling out, putting an end to a dream run by the Cardinals who transformed from a cellar-dweller to the No. 3 seeds in the Final Four playoffs.

Kevin Racal hit two free throws on the next play for a 90-85 lead with 31 seconds left.

“Nobody expected us to be here,” said Letran coach Aldin Ayo, who reached the finals right in his rookie year. “Pero I huddled the team after our alma mater song and I told them, masaya tayo. But we will still a job to do.”

Racal finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds while Rey Nambatac also had a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds for Letran, which will face the winner of the other Final Four pairing between top seed San Beda and No. 4 Jose Rizal University.

Letran went on a 8-0 run to surge ahead, 79-76, with Cruz scoring a tough left-handed lay-up over Allwell Oraeme to keep the momentum going.

The Cardinals’ last stand came when they tied the game at 81 but the Knights answered with a Racal a layup and two JP Calvo free throws with two minutes left in the game for an 85-81 lead.

CJ Isit finally buried a triple late in the game to trim the gap to one point, 91-90, but it came too late with only 0.5 seconds left in the clock.

Biteng led the Cardinals with 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting from three-point land. His triple to end the third gave the Cardinals a 70-67 Mapua lead.

Josan Nimes had 15 points in his final game as a Cardinal while Oraeme had 10 points and a game-high 25 rebounds.

The scores:

Letran (91) — Cruz 24, Racal 19, Sollano 16, Nambatac 12, Quinto 10, Calvo 4, Apreku 3, Luib 3, Balanza 0, Publico 0.

Mapua (90) — Biteng 17, Nimes 15, Menina 15, Isit 11, Oraeme 10, Nieles 10, Serrano 10, Brana 2, Aguirre 0.

Quarterscores: 21-17, 45-42, 67-70, 91-90.

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