The heart of a champion: La Salle refused to lose despite being down by 21

“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

It’s one of the oldest statements in sports, a saying that sometimes borders on the line of becoming a cliche. But there was no better way to explain the miraculous comeback the DLSU Green Archers performed against Ateneo in Game 2.

There it was, with the Blue Eagles ahead by 21 in the first half and looking like they were about to cruise to stealing the UAAP crown from the Green Archers. But led by Ben Mbala and Ricci Rivero, La Salle was unwavering in their goal to force a Game 3. In the blink of an eye, a double-digit deficit turned into a double-digit lead. Shots started to fall for the boys in green while the guys in blue looked suffocated. The Eagles’ side of the Smart-Araneta Coliseum turned silent, their cheers overpowered by the excitement of those wearing green and white.

Admittedly, if you’re a DLSU fan, it was hard to keep the faith in the opening moments of the game. It’s not just that Ateneo was executing better; it seemed as if the Blue Eagles wanted it more. But the supporters of the Green Archers stuck with the team, and their loyalty was paid off once the third quarter began.

La Salle coach Aldin Ayo, who for some reason has faced scrutiny despite being nothing short of excellent during his DLSU tenure, proved that he’s capable of out-coaching Ateneo’s Tab Baldwin. Both of Ayo’s prior seasons in the NCAA and UAAP have ended with championships, and it was clear he wasn’t willing to let that streak end without a fight.

What was the key to the victory? Desperation and aggression.

There was something different in the Green Archers after Ben Mbala’s alley-oop dunk started a run. DLSU out-scored Ateneo 40-10 from the last minutes of the second period until the end of the third. Why was that so? It was because La Salle started looking more sure of itself on the court. While the Blue Eagles got complacent by playing not to lose instead of playing to win, DLSU started firing from all over the court and applied smothering defensive pressure.

In the third period alone, Ateneo had 7 turnovers which was a third of their total for the contest. There also was a disparity in aggressiveness between both teams, with the Eagles attempting 7 shots from downtown but making none, while DLSU went 1-of-2 from deep.

The dedication of the Green Archers to attack the paint – thanks in large part to Rivero, the Most Improved Player, and MVP Mbala – earned them 9 free throw attempts while Ateneo took only 3. And for the critics who say the refs aided La Salle, Ateneo was called for only one more foul (6) than DLSU (5) in the third quarter.

The second game of the finals proved that even just a few minutes can swing the narrative of basketball games. From finishing a dominant sweep to avenge their loss in last year’s finals, the narrative for Ateneo now changes to recovering in time to seal the deal in Game 3. From suffering an embarrassing loss of their championship, the narrative for La Salle now changes to finishing an epic comeback.

It’s Game 3. Everything goes out of the window. This is for all the marbles. Every little advantage will matter. Here’s another cliche but one that is very accurate: the winner will be determined by who wants it more.

The best part? No matter the outcome, it’s going to be one heck of a story to tell for years.