La Salle can flip the switch at any time, but needs to be better to repeat as champs

The De La Salle Green Archers advanced to the finals of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament for the second straight year by, once again, defeating the Adamson Soaring Falcons in the Final Four round.

After trailing for most of the game on Saturday, DLSU outscored Franz Pumaren’s Falcons 28-12 in the final quarter to take control of the contest and book a ticket to the championship round, where the Archers will face either Ateneo – the likely opponent – or FEU – another long-time rival.

It was funny how similar this year’s Final Four encounter against Adamson was to last year’s. The Falcons were in control for most of the game before the Green Archers flipped the switch and totally stole the momentum in what felt like a blink of an eye. Ben Mbala, this year’s UAAP MVP, was once again phenomenal while Ricci Rivero and Santi Santillan continued to play extremely well.

If you properly watched how that game unfolded in the final frame, you’ll see the difference between a UAAP championship team and UAAP Final Four team. Adamson was in perfect position to go for the kill shot in the final period after leading by as much as 15 in the third period, but the Falcons allowed the Green Archers to suffocate them on defense, leading to costly turnovers.

After struggling to get points on the board prior, DLSU suddenly looked like an offensive powerhouse. Jolo Go and Aljun Melecio hit outside shots while Abu Tratter and Mbala made their presence felt inside. The Archers’ ability to suddenly look unstoppable is a skill only champion teams possess. Adamson is definitely getting there, but yesterday it was clear they have some work to do when it comes to putting the nail in the coffin.

While La Salle’s skill to suddenly take control of a match is impressive, the Archers will need 40 consistent minutes in the finals against their likely opponent, the Blue Eagles. Ateneo is well-coached and systematic – the kind of no-star team who can hurt you in many ways. Expecting them to go ice cold or making bad decisions during a certain time frame is playing with fire.

But the Archers have a safety net that Ateneo can only hope to contain – Mbala. The Cameroonian is as close to unstoppable as there is in the UAAP, and Green Archer fans should cherish every second they see Mbala on the court for there will probably never be another foreign student-athlete as talented as he is to hit a UAAP court again.

And for those who say Mbala doesn’t deserve MVP because he’s not a local player, stop being hypocrites. The MVP award is given to either the best player in the league or the player most valuable to their team. Either way, Big Ben deserves it.

It’s the year 2017. If you’re still screaming that an “import” doesn’t deserve it, you’re living in the wrong era. Furthermore, if this is your belief, then you better not be celebrating when a Filipino succeeds abroad.

And here’s another important factor to point out: DLSU did get some benefit with calls, but if you believe referees determine the outcome of games, you’re mistaken.

Sure, the Green Archers shot 39 free throws to Adamson’s 5, but you have to take into account the aggression of both sides. While the Falcons aimed to hurt the defending champions with outside shots, La Salle maintained their aggressive play throughout the game, thus leading to visits to the foul line.

And, once again, if you’re up by 15 in the third quarter and end up losing, the refs don’t cost you the game. Bad decisions – like taking a three-pointer on a three-on-one fastbreak – do.

Writer’s note: the UAAP doesn’t consistently hand out Most Improved Player of the Year awards every season, but if they do this year, it would be a crime if it wasn’t given to Ricci Rivero, who has made it easier for DLSU to transition past the Jeron Teng era.