UAAP: La Salle stands strong to deny Ateneo’s sweep

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Ben Mbala powered La Salle to victory over Ateneo. Arvin Lim, ABS-CBN Sports

MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATED) No sweep.

De La Salle University displayed tremendous heart and composure to stun the Ateneo de Manila University, 79-76, and deny its archrival a sweep of the UAAP Season 80 elimination round.

In front of 13,967 fans at the Araneta Coliseum on Sunday, the Green Archers recovered from a seven-point deficit with 2:24 left to play, uncorking a 10-0 run to end the contest. It was Ateneo’s lone loss of the elimination round after winning their first 13 games.

The defending champion’s victory ensured that the semifinals will take on its traditional format. Ateneo still takes the No. 1 seed with a 13-1 slate, and will face off against Far Eastern University next Sunday. La Salle, the second seed, faces off against No. 3 Adamson University on Saturday.

The Blue Eagles and the Green Archers own twice-to-beat advantages over their respective opponents.

“I have to commend the players for their effort, for sticking to the game plan, especially during the end game,” said La Salle coach Aldin Ayo.

Reigning Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala was a force all game long for La Salle, as he finished with 28 points, 19 rebounds, six steals, and six blocks. Ricci Rivero added 21 points, including the clutch free throws that iced the win for the Green Archers.

“They are still the No. 1 team based on the standings,” said Ayo of the Blue Eagles. “But for us, I think we’re in a very good spot, because we’re peaking at the right time.”

The Green Archers held a slim 37-35 lead at the half as they clobbered Ateneo on the offensive glass, scoring 11 second-chance points. But the Blue Eagles turned the tables in the third quarter, outscoring the Green Archers, 28-17, thanks to their trademark ball movement and stingy defense.

They led by as much as 12 points, 66-54, after Kris Porter knocked down a three-pointer to open the final period. But La Salle responded with an 11-2 run to make it a one possession game, 68-65, with 6:35 left.

An and-1 by Mbala and a split at the line by Rivero made it a two-point game, 69-71, before Ateneo reeled off six unanswered points for a 76-69 advantage with 2:24 left. The final bucket in that run – a lay-up by Vince Tolentino off a Chibueze Ikeh dime – was contentious, as it appeared the Blue Eagles should have been called for a travel or a backcourt violation.

The non-calls clearly irked La Salle coach Aldin Ayo, who was seen at the sideline removing the jacket that he had worn all game long. But his action seemed to fire up the Green Archers, who doubled down on defense in the closing minutes and pounced on Ateneo’s turnovers.

La Salle reeled off eight straight points, capped by a Kib Montalbo floater with 40.3 seconds left, to take a 77-76 advantage. It was redemption of sorts for Montalbo, who was responsible for the crucial turnover in their first-round encounter against Ateneo that led to the Blue Eagles’ victory.

“The first game, when Kib made those mistakes… it doesn’t change the way kung paano ko tinitingnan si Kib,” said Ayo. “He’s one of my leaders, he is co-captain. Whatever he does, I am going to support him.”

Still, Ateneo had plenty of opportunities to regain the lead. Anton Asistio bricked a triple, but they got the ball back after a missed shot by Aljun Melecio. With 12.6 seconds to go, Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin drew up a play that got Isaac Go wide open near the basket, but Mbala was able to recover just in time to bother Go’s shot.

That paved the way for Rivero’s free throws, and he completed his game by blocking Asistio’s attempt at a game-tying three-pointer.

“Big win. We got lucky in the end game, especially Isaac Go’s semi-hook. It was uncontested. Luckily, it did not go in,” said Ayo.

Ateneo, the top offensive team in the league, shot a shade better than La Salle, 41.18% to 39.71% for the Green Archers. But La Salle, led by Mbala, had a 46-42 lead on the glass, including 20 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second chance points.

Just as crucial were Ateneo’s 22 turnovers – six more than their average – that led to 13 points for La Salle. Montalbo’s go-ahead bucket, for instance, came off a Go turnover.

Thirdy Ravena led Ateneo with 15 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, while Go had 13 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Matt Nieto, Ateneo’s hero in Round 1, scored all of his 12 points in the first half.

This marks the second time that Ateneo failed to complete a sweep in their final game of the elimination round. Back in Season 74, the Norman Black-coached Blue Eagles were routed by Adamson, 62-46, in their final game of the eliminations before going on to win the fourth of five straight titles.

Meanwhile, La Salle more than just earned revenge for their loss to Ateneo in the first round. They also got back at their archrivals, who denied their own bid for a sweep in Season 79 by beating them in their penultimate elimination round game.

The scores:

DLSU 79 – Mbala 28, Rivero R 21, Tratter 8, Santillan 7, Melecio 6, Montalbo 6, Go 3, Caracut 0, Rivero P 0, Baltazar 0, Paraiso 0

ATENEO 76 – Ravena 15, Go 13, Nieto Ma 12, Verano 9, Mendoza 7, Asistio 6, Tolentino 6, Ikeh 4, Porter 3, Nieto Mi 1, Mamuyac 0, Black 0

Quarter scores: 17-22, 37-35, 54-63, 79-76

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