KEVIN Alas and the Letran Knights are bound for the NCAA men’s basketball Finals - an unlikely trip for a team that languished in eighth place at one point during the season.
The Knights banked on four straight pressure-packed free throws in the final 23 seconds to pull off a thrilling 73-70 win over the fancied San Sebastian Stags on Monday night in their sudden-death playoff at The Arena in San Juan for the right to face defending champion San Beda.
“It was all about willingness,” said Knights coach Louie Alas. “Parang hindi na ako yung coach kanina, parang cheerleader na lang.”
The high-scoring Kevin Alas and point guard Mark Cruz came up with big numbers anew for the Intramuros-based school, but it was the unheralded duo of Jonathan Belorio and Jam Cortes who made the clutch free throws down the stretch that put a shocking end to the Stags' season.
Belorio’s two free throws with 23.9 seconds left gave the Knights the lead for good, 71-70, before Cortes added two more 14 seconds later when he was fouled after grabbing the rebound off a missed three-pointer by San Sebastian’s Ronald Pascual.
“Focus lang talaga at desire,” the 20-year-old Cruz said. “Kinakabahan talaga ako nung last minutes pero inisip ko na lang na gusto ko talaga pumasok ng Finals. At buti nag step up sila Jonathan and Jam.”
The Stags’ season ended when pro-bound Calvin Abueva missed a potential game-tying three-pointer in the dying seconds, sparking a wild celebration among the Knights at midcourt and Letran fans in the gallery.
After sweeping their four meetings against the Stags this season, including one against the twice-to-beat Stags on Saturday, the Knights return to the finals for the first time in five years as they face the same San Beda team that beat them in the 2007 Finals.
The Knights and the Red Lions begin their best-of-three series on Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Cruz, the league’s smallest player at 5-5, stood tallest among the Knights as he fired a team-high 20 points, while Alas added 18 points in a game of see-sawing fortunes that saw 17 lead changes and three deadlocks.
Calvin Abueva had 22 points and 21 rebounds in what turned out to be his farewell game for the Stags, but he and Alas uncharacteristically missed a pair of freethrows each with the game on the line.
The Stags, heavy favorites to win the championship when the season started, were also undone by a non-call on the Pascual three-point try where there was clearly contact from Alas.
Stags interim coach Allan Trinidad later slammed the officiating in the game, pointing to numerous non-calls, including the one on Pascual in the final seconds.
“Masakit pero kailangan tanggapin. Siguro hindi lang namin time ngayon. Pero sana mag-improve na rin ang officiating next season,” Trinidad said.
Abueva, the second pick overall in this year’s rookie draft, shot just 6-of-28 from the field and committed nine turnovers, and later blamed fatigue for his poor play down the stretch.
“Napagod lang talaga ako,” said Abueva, who will now be eligible to play for Alaska in the Aces' next game. “Pangako ko na mag-iimprove pa ako sa next level.”
Letran (73) – Cruz 20, Alas 18, Belorio 10, Racal 8, Almazan 7, Lituania 4, Gabawan 4, Cortes 2, Luib 0
San Sebastian (70) – Abueva 22, Sangalang 15, Gusi 10, Juico 7, Pascual 6, Dela Cruz 6, Maiquez 4, Antipuesto 0, Miranda 0
Quarterscores: 25-22, 40-44, 54-56, 73-70