By Jerome Lagunzad
Games Today (Smart-Araneta Coliseum)
2 p.m. — UP vs UE
4 p.m. — Ateneo vs FEU
La Salle coach Aldin Ayo couldn’t care less if reigning league MVP Ben Mbala is not in their fold yet. After all, the Green Archers, more potent and talented than ever, are still getting the job done.
In a show of force, defending champion La Salle outgunned National University and hacked out a 115-109 victory to seize a share of the top spot in the UAAP Season 80 basketball tournament at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
Wingman Ricci Rivero finally played true to form with a team-high of 21 points, nine of them coming in the final canto, while playmaker Aljun Melecio, backup Jollo Go and rookie big man Leonard Santillan backed them up as the Green Archers overcame an 11-point, third-quarter deficit and a tough Bulldogs side.
It was the second straight victory by La Salle against a perceived title contender and the Green Archers did it anew without the presence of the 6-foot-7 Mbala, who has yet to return to the country after suiting up for his home country Cameroon in the 2017 AfroBasket tournament.
“I always tell the players not to take away anything from basketball,” said Ayo.
“Hindi pwedeng may darating at bababa kami. When Ben arrives, aangat kami kasama siya and talking about adjustments, wala naman masyado because hindi kami masyado nag-adjust dun sa pagkawala niya. Gusto namin pagbalik niya go agad.”
But Ayo could still afford not to rush Mbala into the thick of things as long as the Green Archers will continue to perform.
The 5-foot-7 Melecio sustained his brilliance for La Salle with 20 points and eight assist while the 6-foot-6 Santillian, a blue chip recruit from University of Visayas, did his best impersonation of Mbala with 16 points and 16 rebounds, doing enough to neutralize NU’s Senegalese import Issa Gaye.
Rookie Jordan Bartlett paced all scorers with 23 points while four other teammates scored in double figures but the Bulldogs practically ran out of steam after leading by as many as 11 points at 80-69 in the third canto.
In the other match, Adamson pounded an error-prone UST crew, 88-81, to give Cameroon import Papi Sarr a triumphant return from a groin injury and set its title bid in motion.
Second-year guard Rob Manalang tallied 19 points while the 6-foot-6 Sarr, still far from his top form, had 10 points and four rebounds as the Soaring Falcons bounced back from a 20-point loss dealt by the Blue Eagles last week.
La Salle 115 – Rivero R 21, Melecio 20, Go 19, Santillan 13, Tratter 11, Rivero P 10, Caracut 9, Montalbo 8, Baltazar 4.
NU 109 – Bartlett 23, Alejandro 18, Gaye 16, Salem 12, Aquino 10, Morido 5, Diputado 5, Yu 4, Lastimosa 4, Tibayan 4, Abatayo 4, Mosqueda 2, Rangel 2, Cauilan 0, Joson 0, Flores 0.
Quarters: 31-29, 65-61, 91-88, 115-109.
Adamson 88 – Manalang 19, Lojera 16, Manganti 11, Sarr 10, Pingoy 9, Ahanmisi 8, Espeleta 5, Camacho 4, Hill 3, Bernardo 2, Ochea 1, Frias 0, Mustre 0, Zaldivar 0.
UST 81 – Faundo 21, Lee 14, Sta. Ana 14. Akomo 10, Arana 9, Basibas 7, De Guzman 2, Kwawukumey 2, Lorenzana 2, Garcia 0, Soriano 0, Caunan 0, Escalambre 0, Macasaet 0, Huang 0.
Quarters: 24-16, 45-39, 70-58, 88-81.
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