Through 16 games in both the elimination and playoff rounds of Season 79, whenever DLSU needed a basket, everyone at the venue – from the fans and alumni in the stands, the La Salle coaching staff, and even the opposing squad – knows which player would be getting his number called. But with La Salle holding to the slimmest of lead, 66-65, and the fate of Game 1 in the balance, number 21, team captain Jeron Teng, would provide the biggest defensive play in his UAAP career.
After converting a layup to give La Salle the go-ahead lead with 15.1 seconds to go, Jeron’s block on Ateneo’s Aaron Black put DLSU a step closer to clinching the Green Archers’ ninth UAAP men’s basketball title courtesy of the 67-65 victory at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Coming off a nine-day break after disposing the Adamson Falcons, 69-64, in the Final Four, the early 16-2 rally and 19-6 lead after the first period was the perfect start the team needed in the opener of this best-of-three series. DLSU coach Aldin Ayo unveiled a surprise by starting fifth-year guard Julian Sargent, who not only matched up well defensively against Ateneo’s tall backcourt but also contributed superbly on offense with seven points, three rebounds, and two assists.
The thing with La Salle-Ateneo games, as I mentioned to a media colleague, is that no lead is safe or insurmountable for the trailing squad; even with the Blue Eagles firing blanks in the first 10 minutes of the game and converting only two field goals, the result is only guaranteed after the final buzzer.
Getting outplayed in the next two periods, especially in the third where La Salle got outscored 16-26, enabled the Katipunan-based squad to knot the score at 52-all entering the final canto. Coincidentally, it was in the middle two periods that Jeron was held scoreless and Big Ben Mbala and Season 79 Rookie of the Year Aljun Melecio had to carry the scoring cudgels for La Salle, combining to score 22 of the team’s 33 points.
Aside from cooling down from a hot, 14/25 (56%) field goal shooting in the first half, questionable calls and non-calls from the referees were having negative effects on the flow of La Salle’s mayhem system. 10 fouls, including an unsportsmanlike whistle on Kib Montalbo at the 4:53 mark, were called against the team, resulting into 16 (of 30 total) free throw attempts by the Blue Eagles in the third period.
Being the more mature team, the Green Archers wanted to separate the men from the boys in the final period but a young, well-coached Ateneo squad was just as game as La Salle. Still leading by four, 63-59, after a Melecio three-pointer with 4:40 remaining, the Blue and White squad would stage a 6-0 rally, punctuated by Ateneo point guard Matt Nieto’s conversion with 34.6 seconds to go for a one-point lead.
The last few sequences of the game not only proved how valuable La Salle’s experience is but also showed which team wanted the win more. Ben’s great seal on Ateneo’s import Chibueze Ikeh gave Jeron the slightest of opening for the last two of his total 10 points. While JT’s block on Black’s perimeter attempt a few seconds later might as well be remembered as “The Block” in DLSU’s fabled UAAP basketball history.
Despite scoring two more points than the Blue Eagles, this game was also a testament to the defensive will and effort of the boys. Aside from making Ateneo shoot 21/67 overall from the field, Black was the only player to finish in double-digits with 12 points while the team limited the damage of Thirdy Ravena and Final Four hero Isaac Go to a combined 14 points and six rebounds.
If La Salle’s last title series in 2013 can attest, winning the first game isn’t a guarantee for championship success. The UST Growling Tigers won Game 1 by a single point, 73-72 before Jeron, then a sophomore player, combined with graduating players like Norbert Torres and Almond Vosotros to grab the next two games, 77-70 and 71-69.
The Green Archers have already one hand holding the men’s basketball trophy, they only need to grab it with the other one on December 7 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum to finish one of the greatest and most exciting season in De La Salle basketball history.
Animo La Salle!