“The trophy is back in Muralla!” roared the fans as the Letran Knights were crowned champions of the NCAA Season 91.
For a team that did not make the NCAA Final Four last year, no one expected Letran to win their first title since season 81 and their 17th overall. But to do that, they had to go through the San Beda Red Lions, the defending champions who were going for a record to claim their sixth six consecutive season, and their anticipated 20th overall.
After a long season, both the Knights and the Red Lions found themselves in a tight series that went the distance with both teams going neck and neck on a deciding game 3. With barely 2 minutes left in regulation, the Knights were poised to get the win with a solid 75-67 lead. However, the Red Lions made a run led by Amer Baser to force the game into overtime.
Led by rookie head coach Aldin Ayo, the Knights played a system that emphasized pace and space, making use of their hot shooting stars Kevin Racal and Rey Nambatac, plus the incredible passing of their guard Mark Cruz. The Knights also debuted their “Mayhem” defense which forced their opponents to over 27.9 turnovers per game all season long. Using “Mayhem”, the Knights transformed into a formidable run-and-gun squad that finished the season with a 13-5 record, tying that of the Red Lions. Ayo, who was named this season’s Coach of the Year, made the team realize what he believed in from the start: They can win it all.
Shaken as the game almost slipped away, it was coach Ayo who kept the team composed under pressure. In addition to the Knights’ big three of Cruz (14 points), Racal (24 points) and Nambatac (13 points), their big man Jomari Sollano was having a career night with 19 points, outshining the Red Lions’ star import Ola Adeogun. Of Sollano’s points, the biggest came on a crucial possession with 32.6 seconds left in overtime, as Cruz passed him the ball for a jump shot that gave them an 83-82 lead.
As the game concluded with a score of 85-82, Cruz was named the NCAA Season 91 Finals MVP.
It was one of the most thrilling games in NCAA history where the top two teams with the most championships competed for the crown. Both teams played like champions but at the sound of the final buzzer, it was the team who defied all odds and played inspired basketball that came out on top. For the Muralla-based Knights, the decade-long wait was over – the NCAA title had come back to Letran.