MANILA, Philippines – With their backs against the wall, the De La Salle Green Archers displayed the heart of a champion.
Trailing by as many as 21 points, with one of their key players in foul trouble, the defending champions dug deep to stun their archrivals, the Ateneo Blue Eagles, in Game 2 of the UAAP Season 80 finals on Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Behind an MVP-level effort from Ben Mbala, solid contributions from its guards, and a gutsy performance from Ricci Rivero, La Salle came away with a 92-83 victory over Ateneo to send the best-of-three finals to a deciding Game 3.
“We stuck together,” said Mbala, who received his second straight MVP trophy before the game. “We saw some of our players down, struggling. But we kept grinding, we kept pushing. Our coaches told us to keep believing.”
Mbala, after being limited to a career-low eight points in Game 1, had 20 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, three steals, and four blocks this time to lead the way for the Green Archers. Rivero bucked foul trouble to finish with 18 points, while the pair of Andrei Caracut and Aljun Melecio combined for 25 points.
It was perhaps the most impressive victory of the season for the Green Archers, as the defending champions looked dead in the water after a brutal start to the game.
The Green Archers gave up 32 points in the opening quarter, and had no answer for their rivals’ hot shooting. Ateneo was simply on fire in the first quarter, with Anton Asistio drilling three triples, and Thirdy Ravena and Jolo Mendoza firing one each.
Ateneo’s lead ballooned to 21 points twice, at 45-24 and again at 49-28. To make matters worse for the Green Archers, Rivero was forced to head to the bench after being called for his fourth foul with still 3:23 left to play in the second frame.
Rivero was clearly emotional in his return to the bench, with the newly minted Mythical Team member nearly in tears. But the Green Archers rallied around their teammate, as they ended the second quarter on a torrid run.
Consecutive buckets by Leonard Santillan and Mbala touched off a 14-2 run for the Green Archers, with Melecio contributing a three-point play as well as three more charities off a foul by Isaac Go. Another lay-up by Mbala trimmed the deficit to single digits heading into halftime, 51-42, and gave La Salle the momentum heading into the second half.
“That first quarter, medyo gigil ang mga players. We realized in the second quarter that we really needed to contain them, because almost all of their points were coming from transition,” said La Salle assistant coach Miggy Solitaria, who faced the media in place of head coach Aldin Ayo.
“Nakinig naman ang mga players, and they did well,” he added.
The defending champions were clearly fired up in the third quarter, as they completely clamped down on the Blue Eagles. The poise that Ateneo displayed in the opening quarter all but evaporated in the face of increased pressure from La Salle, and the frazzled Blue Eagles coughed up the ball in their first two possessions of the third period.
La Salle wound up seizing complete control of the game in the third quarter. Mbala continued his dominance inside the paint, and the Green Archers repeatedly took advantage of Ateneo’s turnovers for transition points. Despite being saddled with four fouls, Rivero returned at the five-minute mark to give his team a lift.
The Green Archers tied the game for the first time off a Santillan bucket, 58-all, before Isaac Go responded to give Ateneo back the lead, 60-58. However, it marked the last time that the Blue Eagles would be in front: La Salle again ended the quarter on a strong note, reeling off a 12-1 run for a 68-59 lead entering the final frame.
In what would be the pivotal third frame, La Salle outscored Ateneo 26-8, limiting the Blue Eagles to only 3-of-17 shooting from the field. In contrast, the Green Archers made nine of their 14 attempts.
The Blue Eagles tried repeatedly to work their way back in the fourth period, with Aaron Black in particular attacking repeatedly to try and cut the deficit. Unfortunately, they could not get stops on the other end: Mbala, Melecio and Rivero came through with buckets to keep the Blue Eagles at bay, with Rivero capping his inspirational performance with the lay-up that gave La Salle its biggest lead, 85-72, with four minutes to play.
“Sa second half, it wasn’t me who played,” said Rivero. “Siguro, that was God.”
Against an Ateneo team that limited its opponents to only 73.7 points per game, La Salle exploded for 92 points on 48.48% shooting; it was the most that the Green Archers have scored against the Blue Eagles in Season 80. Moreover, they were superb on defense, limiting Ateneo to only 38.4% from the field and forcing the usually steady Blue Eagles to commit 21 turnovers.
Thirdy Ravena had 20 points, six rebounds, and four assists, but was responsible for seven of Ateneo’s turnovers. Black finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but his explosion came too little, too late for his team.
Asistio, whose first quarter explosion helped the Blue Eagles build their big lead, was scoreless in the second half and finished with 13 points. Game 1 hero Isaac Go had 11 points, and point guard Matt Nieto scored 10 points but shot only four-of-14 from the field.
After making six of their 12 three-pointers in the first half, Ateneo went ice cold in the second, converting only one of 11 shots from beyond the arc.
Game 3 of the best-of-3 finals is on Sunday at the Araneta Coliseum, where the Green Archers are undefeated in Season 80. In contrast, all three of Ateneo’s losses this year have come at the Big Dome.
DLSU 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
QUARTER SCORES: 15-32, 42-51, 68-59, 92-83
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