AFTER 95 games, 50 playdates, and almost five grueling months of action, controversy and drama, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament finally comes to a fitting climax on Saturday.
And what a better way to cap off one of the longest seasons in recent memory than two of the league’s fiercest rivals going against each other for the ultimate prize.
San Beda and Letran try to prove which between them is the best team in the country’s oldest collegiate league when they collide in a winner-take-all showdown at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“At least the season will be over and done with and I’m hoping that in the end, we’ll be the one hoisting the trophy,” Red Lions coach Boyet Fernandez told Spin.ph on Friday after the three-time defending champions’ practice.
The season already stretched to the fullest following several postponed games, and the league was extended another two days when the Knights scored a 79-74 win in Game Two last Thursday to forge the do-or-die affair set at 2 p.m.
Letran, seeking a first title in eight years, is not complaining.
“When you go the last game of the season with the title on the line, there’s no excuse na pagod kayo kasi ito ang pinagla-labanan niyo,” Knights coach Caloy Garcia said.
The Lions have held the distinction as the league’s best the past three years and six of the last seven as the Mendiola-based dribblers cemented their status as the NCAA’s most successful basketball team with 17 titles overall.
And one can’t help but question if the desire to win is still there for the reigning champions.
“There is always hunger every year,” Fernandez said. “The hunger will always be there for my rookies as well as my seniors.”
This year’s title series somewhat resembles the Finals last season, when the matchup was also extended to a deciding game that saw Lions ride on a hot start to hammer the Knights, 67-39, and bag the crown.
Letran holdover Mark Cruz, who was the lone double-digit scorer with 12 points in last year’s Game Three, assured the same thing won’t happen again.
“Hindi na déjà vu kasi `yung Game Three last year sa Araneta, ngayon sa MOA,” Cruz said sarcastically, before turning serious. “Wala kaming nagawa last year. Sumuko na agad kami early on pa lang. Pero ngayon, hindi na mangyayari yun.”
“It’s the best chance for payback,” Garcia said, admitting he wasn’t able to watch the Game Three rout last year in the final game of former mentor Louie Alas. “Hindi ko alam ano nangyari bakit ganun ka-laki `yung lamang. I just hope we don’t come out flat this time. They know what’s at stake.”
“It’s all about the character of the players on both sides, who wants it more, and at the same time, whoever can come out strong might have the better chance of winning,” Garcia added.