by Jerome Lagunzad
Game Sunday (Smart-Araneta Coliseum)
3:30 p.m. – Ateneo vs La Salle
(Game 3, winner-take-all match)
La Salle wingman Ricci Rivero got into foul trouble early but he turned his frustration into motivation to help La Salle stun Ateneo, 92-83, last night and force a winner-take-all showdown in their UAAP Finals inside a raucous Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
The 6-foot-2 Rivero played like a man on a mission after the break where he tallied 12 of his 18 points as he sliced his way at will against the Blue Eagles’ defense while helping the Green Archers complete their fightback from a 21-point deficit.
The come-from-behind victory, carved out before 15,286 fans, extended La Salle’s winning streak to nine matches inside the Big Dome where the sudden-death Game 3 will also be held before an expected sellout crowd on Sunday.
Rivero, who made it to the league’s Mythical Team for the first time, conspired with veteran Andrei Caracut in their third quarter onslaught where they combined for 15 in their 26 point-explosion—18 more than Ateneo’s combined output as La Salle’s “Mayhem” defense came to the fore.
“Sinabi lang ng brother ko (Prince Rivero) na ‘yun nga, ‘That wasn’t me and kailangang maglaro ako na ako lang, relaxed and hindi gigil,’” said the younger Rivero who also added five rebounds and four assists.
Newly-minted back-to-back MVP Ben Mbala, held to a career-low eight points in their 76-70 loss in the series opener over the weekend, also came back to life for La Salle with game-highs of 20 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks despite picking up two early fouls.
Caracut, scoreless the last time out, also did his fair share with 13 points while skipper Kib Montalbo provided the defensive spunk with three steals aside from scoring nine points and issuing a game-high five assists to help the Archers’ cause.
“Well part of wanting it more, ‘yung discipline on defense, we really didn’t gamble more on the second half,” said La Salle assistant Miggy Solitaria, impressed with how the Archers made life miserable for the Blue Eagles in the decisive half.
Thirdy Ravena had a team-high 20 points on top of six rebounds and four assists but accounted for a game-worst seven errors while Aaron Black led three other teammates who scored in double figures with 15 points off Ateneo’s bench.
The Blue Eagles, however, found no answer to the Green Archers’ audacious fightback that started with a 14-2 run late in the second period before they unleashed their full might after the turn.
“I’ll say we stick together. We kept grinding, we kept pushing. The coach told us to keep believing. I feel like we got used to games like this and we just have to stick together, stick to the game plan, and play ‘D’,” said the 6-foot-7 Mbala.
It was all Blue Eagles in the first half, however. After Rivero opened up the scoring with an acrobatic lay-up, Ateneo answered back with aplomb behind gunner Anton Asistio who drained three quick triples before Jolo Mendoza drilled in another for a whopping 32-13 lead.
La Salle 92 – Mbala 20, Rivero R 18, Caracut 13, Melecio 12, Montalbo 9, Santillan 8, Rivero P 8, Tratter 4, Tero 0, Go 0, Baltazar 0.
ATENEO 83 – Ravena 20, Black 15, Asistio 13, Go 11, Nieto Ma 10, Ikeh 6, Mendoza 5, Tolentino 2, Tio 1, Verano 0, Nieto Mi 0, Mamuyac 0, Porter 0.
Quarters: 15-32, 42-51, 68-59, 92-83.
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