The game, for all intents and purposes, was hyped up and treated pre-game like a boxing match, looked like an early TKO for the DLSU Green Archers, and ended like a 12-round, hard-earned decision victory for the defending UAAP men’s basketball champions.
Boxing jargons aside, yesterday’s match, a well-played 95-90 victory at the Mall of Asia Arena, proved that the team is well on its way towards a post-Jeron Teng era and that it can thrive in league even without reigning MVP Ben Mbala.
After leading 29-11 at the end of the first quarter and 47-32 at intermission thanks to the scorching shooting from Season 79 Rookie of the Year Aljun Melecio, the Green side of MoA Arena was already bracing for an easy finish in their first game of the opening weekend. Even as the Green Archers’ lead dwindled to 49-40 after back-to-back conversions by controversial FEU guard Ron Dennison, La Salle’s backcourt had all the answer and fire suppressor needed to put out the Tamaraws’ threat.
Team captain Kib Montalbo, expected to miss the game after recuperating from an illness, suddenly found his stroke and waxed hot from three-point land, converting three long-range bombs in a span of two minutes to help sustain Melecio’s 20-point first half effort. Another three-pointer, this time from rookie Leonard “Santi” Santillian with 12.9 seconds remaining, gave DLSU a comfortable 73-52 buffer entering the final period.
DLSU head coach Aldin Ayo offered his take on his team captain: “Ganun yun (forms the shape of a heart with his two hands). Isipin niyo dehydrated ‘yun (Montalbo); galing sa dextrose, hindi nga 100% perfect ‘yun e. Pero siguro nakatulong yung mindset (niya) na wala namang expectations sa kanya e, kasi galing sa ospital. Hindi mo matatawaran yung ugali ng bata na kapag kailangan siya ng team, nandoon (siya).”
Montalbo’s last three pointer at the 6:12 mark of the fourth gave La Salle an 84-66 lead but FEU would make things interesting by unleashing a 19-6 run in the next four minutes to trim the Green Archers’ once insurmountable lead to just 90-85.
“Breakdown on defense and then decision-making on offense also. I told you guys that we’re still a young team, ‘pag dating sa crunch time there were questionable decision-making. Especially yung tira ni Aljun doon sa corner pero I know he’s going to learn from it.”
It did help that the team went a steady 24/29 from the charity stripe while the Morayta-based squad managed to just go 13 of 22. Melecio paced the squad with a UAAP seniors career-high 29 points that went along with six rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Backcourt mate Andrei Caracut tossed in 16 markers while Motalbo and Abu Tratter finished with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
“For sure we’re going to learn from this experience. Yung laro na ito may matututunan kami especially yung composure namin pag dating sa end-game.”
Ayo also praised his big men rotation which stepped up in the absence of Mbala as the trio of Santillan, Prince Rivero, and Justine Baltazar combined to produce 20 points and 16 rebounds. Mbala, the leading scorer for the national team of Cameroon in the 2017 Afrobasket, might still miss their next assignment depending on the outcome of the quarterfinals.
Ayo however, let out a statement that should send shrivers down the spines of other UAAP schools: “Si Ben, we always tell him to do new things. Kasi yung bata grabe yung work ethic. We might convert him to the three-spot when he comes back. He can play (the) two, three, four, five (spots) for us now because of the skills sets that he has developed.”
The Green Archers try to go 2-0 against NU and their new coach Jamike Jarin on Saturday, September 16 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Animo La Salle!