Thomas Torres threw a bad pass.
It looked too strong, as if he got too eager and had mistimed the lob. As the ball traced an unseen arc in the air, there was a look of concern on his face. It seemed too far from the rim, too difficult for his teammate to catch and guide to the cup. But that look of concern was quickly replaced by awe.
Leave it to Ben Mbala to turn a bad pass into a breathtaking play, a dunk that shook the rim, sent half the MOA Arena into pandemonium, and had social media reeling.
Mbala jumped high, and so did the Green Archers, high above the doubts, the noise, and the concerns regarding the loss of their coach and team captain heading into this high-profile match against their arch-rivals. As Mbala returned to earth after that rim-rattling dunk, he was still jumping up and down, and so were his teammates, the La Salle bench, and the team’s supporters.
It was the most indelible highlight in a game full of them. The score read, La Salle-76, Ateneo-55, 1:58 left in the third. It was the biggest game of the season so far, and the team played with their best effort.
Using a searing run early in the second period, the Green Archers battered the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 97-81, earlier today at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay. The win gives La Salle a sweep of the first round for the first time since 2002 despite the absence of their head coach, Aldin Ayo, and their team captain Jeron Teng. Ayo was suspended after being ejected from the Archers’ previous game last Wednesday against UE, while Teng sat out due to an injury.
Mbala led the charge for the Archers, finishing with 28 points, 13 rebounds, and five steals, while Andrei Caracut, fresh from a clutch performance against the Red Warriors, added 14 points, all in the first half.
After a tight first quarter that ended in a 20-20 stalemate, the Eagles momentarily grabbed a lead early in the second period. Mbala, Caracut, and the Archers however, unleashed a run midway through the quarter as La Salle led 53-36 at the half as they outscored Ateneo in the second 33-16.
La Salle would unleash the full might of its ‘Mayhem’ defense in the third period, flustering the Ateneo guards into committing turnovers and making easy baskets in transition. Mbala scored 10 more points in the third period, while Torres added five and Abu Tratter added four.
The Blue Eagles briefly tried to rally midway through the fourth, as three consecutive triples brought them to within 89-73, with 4:14 left in the game. But a putback by Mark Dyke and a fast break lay-up by Aljun Melecio would ice the game for the Archers.
Adrian Wong paced Ateneo with 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, while Matt Nieto added 13 for the Blue Eagles, who fell to a 4-3 record after winning two straight games.
The Archers’ swarming defense forced Ateneo into committing 30 turnovers, which they exploited to the hilt and converted into 33 points, while also dominating their rivals in fastbreak points, 21-2. La Salle also won the battle of the boards, 49-41, including a 23-11 edge on the offensive glass.
Note: Some members of the crowd wore black aside from the customary green and blue worn by supporters from the rivals schools as a form of protest to the extra-judicial killings in the country and the burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.
La Salle- 97 – Mbala-28, Caracut-14, Tratter-10, Torres-8, Montalbo-8, Ri. Rivero-8, Melecio-5, Perkins-5, Dyke-4, Baltazar-2, Go-2, Paraiso-2, Pr. Rivero-1, Sargent-0
Ateneo -81- Wong-15, Ma. Nieto-13, Asistio-11, Ravena-11, Mendoza-9, Ikeh-7, Porter-6, Go-5, Babilonia-2, Mi. Nieto-2, Tolentino-0, Verano-0
Quarterscores: 20-20, 53-36, 80-58, 97-81