MARK Cruz, the smallest man on the court, stood tallest once again in leading Letran to a rousing 95-89 overtime victory over College of St. Benilde on Saturday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at The Arena in San Juan.
The 5-foot-5 playmaker flirted with a triple-double and delivered the key baskets down the stretch as the Knights held off a surprisingly tough Blazers side that was without key player Paolo Taha.
The Knights formally secured a Final Four berth after recording their 12th win in 15 games.
“Sabi ni coach Caloy kunin ko na daw `yung bola at ako na mag-decide kung anong gagawin, so I took the responsibility,” said Cruz, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists.
Five of Cruz’s offensive output came in the extra period, including a long-range jumper over the outstretched arms of Mark Romero that made it 88-85 for Letran with one minute and 49 seconds to go.
“(For Mark), the thing I remind him is his leadership because importante sa kanya is for him to adapt being a leader because lahat ng players tumitingin sa kanya, so once he has his head down, pati buong team bumababa ang morale,” Knights coach Caloy Garcia said.
The Knights dealt the Blazers yet another heartbreaking loss as their victims crumbled in the endgame after building a sizeable lead.
The Blazers fell to a 5-10 win-loss slate that all but eliminated them from a Final Four contention.
Trailing most of the way, the Knights regained their bearings late in the fourth period, scoring eight unanswered points at one point to turn an 80-74 deficit into a two-point lead with 1:03 to go.
Romero, who registered 19 points, 14 boards, and three assists, sent the game into overtime after scoring a short stab off a nice recovery from his blocked shot.
“Sluggish kami nung una, but the players just wanted to prove themselves,” Garcia said. “We showed character in the second half.”
Raymond Almazan continued his sterling play, tallying 16 points, 13 boards, and two blocks with just four minutes of rest.
Rey Nambatac and Kevin Racal also produced double-figure digits for the Knights, but shone more on the defensive end.
Letran (95) -- Cruz 19, Nambatac 17, Almazan 16, Racal 16, Ruaya 8, Buenaflor 6, Tambeling 5, Castro 3, Belorio 3, Luib 2, Gabawan 0, Publico 0.
St. Benilde (89) -- Romero 19, Bartolo 17, Garcia 16, Jonson 12, Grey 10, Saavedra 6, Sinco 3, Nayve 2, Argamino 2, Ongteco 2, De Guzman 0, Deles 0.
Quarterscores: 21-22; 33-42; 58-62; 82-82 (reg); 95-89.