BACKED against the wall after a loss on Monday, the Letran Knights suffered another blow as star playmaker Mark Cruz is nursing a swollen thumb in his shooting hand that he doubts would heal in time for Game Two of the NCAA men's basketball finals against San Beda on Thursday.
Starting guard Cruz skipped the Knights' practice on Tuesday because of the excruciating pain on the thumb, which he said he hurt when he was hit hard by San Beda guard Baser Amer on a drive to the basket in the third quarter of Game One.
“Kanina hindi ako nag practice, kasi hindi ko talaga kaya," said the Letran sparkplug. “Masakit talaga yung daliri. Nahihirapan akong humawak ng bola. Namamaga nga ngayon, may pasa. Nangigitim."
In fact, Cruz admitted that he’ll never be 100 percent, even if he suits up on Thursday when the Knights attempt to deny San Beda a sweep of the best-of-three finals - and a fourth straight league championship - at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“Baka maga pa ito by that time (Game Two)... pero dadaanin ko na lang sa gamot,” he said.
The injury as well as cramps on both feet, Cruz said, were the reasons he had to sit out crucial portions in the third and fourth quarters, when the Amer-led Red Lions made the decisive breakaway on the way to an 80-68 win.
“Kaya hindi na ko nakalaro masyado nun, sumabay pa yung cramps ko sa magkabilang paa,” he said.
“Siguro po kung hindi ako na-injure, baka nakasabay kami ng kaunti. Tingin ko kung andun ako makokontrol naman,” Cruz said. “Hindi ko masabi. Pero sinuwerte na rin kasi sila eh.”
Letran coach Caloy Garcia said he ran drills Tuesday afternoon without Cruz, but denied he was preparing to play Game Two without his starting guard.
“Nag-practice kami kanina ng wala siya. We run plays na wala si Mark,” said Garcia. “Syempre malaking bagay siya sa amin. We know he is a scorer, he can dictate the tempo of the game. But this is the finals, no time to relax.
“Kaso back against the wall na kami. We have to win in the last two games ... We are still not done with our season. We’re not yet ready to quit,” said Garcia.
Meanwhile, former Letran coach Louie Alas believes Cruz is one player the Knights can't afford to lose.
"Talagang naramdaman lang ng Letran yung pagkawala ni Mark. Tingin ko malaking bagay yun kasi nag-click ang three-point shooting ng San Beda,” alas said.
“Pero in fairness, maganda ang rotation ni coach Caloy. It’s just that kailangang may mag-step up kapag may nawala tulad nga ni Mark,” he added. “Pero doable yan. Kayang manalo ng Letran!”
Asked if Letran can win without Cruz in the series, Alas shook his head: “Naku, baka hindi. Siya ang heart and soul ng team eh!”