MPBL: San Juan Knights nip Davao Occidental for title

DAVAO CITY – San Juan capped a fitting way to end the MPBL Datu Cup by conquering Davao Occidental, 87-86, in a thrilling finish in Game 5 of their national finals in front of a stunned Davaoenos who packed the Rizal Memorial College Gym late Thursday night.

The Knights charged back strong from a seven-point deficit, 84-77, with less than two minutes to go in the match as Jhonard Clarito knocked in his team’s last six points, and propelled the Knights as the first ever national champion of the fastest growing regional amateur basketball league put up by Senator Manny Pacquiao with PBA legend and former MVP Kenneth Duremdes.

A hardworking forward from a less fancied school De Ocampo Memorial College in the NCRAA, Clarito’s go-ahead lay up in the last eight seconds put the Knights ahead, 87-86, but San Juan had to wait for Eman Calo’s desperation heave before erupting in celebration in midcourt, tears of joy flowing in the eyes of most of the members of the team, particularly head coach Randy Alcantara, who had come in full circle, winning championships for this historic franchise.

In Year 2000, Alcantara was one of the key players of the Knights squad that won the Metropolitan Basketball Association, a precursor of the MPBL. Nearly two decades later, he is back playing a different role as head coach of the team and guided San Juan to a championship.

“Hindi ko alam kung paano ko paniniwalaan ito,” said Alcantara, who was also named Coach of the Year. “Grabe yung nilaro ng mga players, they didn’t give up. Thank you, Lord, hindi mo kami pinabayaan. Hindi man namin nakuha sa home court, in the end, champion pa rin kami.”

It is the second straight season Alcantara won a championship. He was part of the Batangas Athletics champion squad last season, serving as an assistant coach to Mac Tan.

Mike Ayonayon, who led the way with 33 points, was chosen as hands down Finals MVP. He knocked in 20 of his total output in the first half. He started the Knights’ 10-2 run that completed the team’s comeback inside the final two minutes of the match.

It was like a flip side to what happened in Game 4 when the Tigers of Davao Occidental mounted a rally in the last eight minutes to deny the Knights a championship at home.

Davao Occidental was ready to make a celebration earlier when it led by as many as eight points and held an 84-77 lead entering the final two minutes. But at the height of San Juan’s uprising, the Tigers were taking ill-advised shots, heaving three-point shots instead of attacking the hoop.