REMEMBER when Letran, proud, proud Letran who refused to line up foreign students, faced San Beda in their first meeting of Season 82? Rey Guevarra took a gusty pass from RJ Jazul and dunked the ball on Red Lions center Sam Ekwe in the final play for a 70-69 win. Only San Beda had the last laugh as they swept the Knights in two straight in the finals for their second-straight title.
Remember when Letran won Game Two of the 2012 finals with Jonathan Belorio the unlikely hero? Poised to steal the finals, the Knights crumbled in Game Three, scoring only 39 points as San Beda romped to a 28-point anticlimactic victory. It was not only longtime Coach Louie Alas’s last game for Letran after leading them to three titles, but it was also the last for his sons Kevin and Kristoffer; a virtually end of an era.
Remember when Letran thought that the third time would be the charm as they once more evened up matters in the 2013 finals only to lose in the final minute of Game Three to hand San Beda its fourth-straight title?
Remember how Letran came up short in a last-ditch rally in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Filoil Flying V Hanes Premier Cup with the Red Lions using only their third stringers?
It seemed that year after year, and what was close to a decade now, that the Letran Knights only knew futility against San Beda.
Even since the Red Lions paraded African players, they have not only owned the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), but they overtook Letran’s 16 men’s NCAA titles by winning eight of the last nine championships for a record of 19 crowns. The old men of Letran chafed but never gave up hope.
Even if they didn’t have the championship pedigree of San Beda.
Even if they weren’t particularly tall.
Even if they weren’t as deep.
Even if they played all-Filipino.
It was a source of pride for the team that they swam in the face of change that has swept collegiate basketball all over the archipelago.
During the 2009 NCAA Finals, the San Sebastian Stags, led by Calvin Abueva, Ronald Pascual and Ian Sangalang, stopped San Beda’s march for a fourth-straight title. After the Finals, they put on shirts that jabbed at their vanquished foes: “All-Filipino Champions.”
However, the Red Lions answered with a most telling response as they came back by winning a championship with an all-Filipino crew of their own when Daniel went out with an injury at the start of the 2011 season.
Letran, in the meantime, stuck to its guns. And their faith was rewarded.
This season, a most unlikely one, Letran began and ended Season 91 with a win over its longtime NCAA rival—with a win. A win now that will somewhat ease the stigma of three previous Finals losses and put them firmly back in the chase for the most number of NCAA titles.
San Beda was gunning for history.
Instead, it was the Knights who wrote it.
“Parang taun-taon na lang nila kami ibinabaon,” said Rey Nambatac on the eve of the Finals. “Noong Juniors pa ako.”
“May mga nagsasabi, nandito na naman ang Letran sa finals pero iiyak sa huli,’” Mark Cruz added. “Kailangan namin subukan di ba? Laban lang. Ganyan naman kami dito sa Letran. Laban lang.”
They sure did in Game Three.
Even if they were outrebounded, 55-36.
Even if they shot fewer free throws, 24-16.
Even if they had fewer assists, 18-17.
Even if they gave up more fouls, 25-21.
Even if they had fewer second-chance points, 14-10.
Whatever happens from here on, even in the next few years, ye gods, those old men of Letran, they’ll remember this championship.