CENTER Ben Mbala scored 20 points and 15 rebounds to lead De La Salle University to a narrow 67-65 victory over archrival Ateneo de Manila University in Game 1 of the 79th University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball finals last night at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles made a huge effort to stop the 6-foot-7 Mbala in the paint, but could not. Still, they tried to make things difficult for La Salle in the final moments of the fourth period, trailing by just one with 3.3 seconds left.
But Aljun Melecio and Jeron Teng delivered the big plays in the last four minutes, bringing the Green Archers closer to their ninth UAAP men’s title and first since 2013.
The Archers were blazing at the start, taking charge with an 18-2 run in which Teng made six of his 10 points. The 6-foot-2 guard’s basket after a turnover by Mike Nieto gave the lead for good, 66-65, and his block of Aaron Black’s desperate attempt in the final minute made all the difference for La Salle late.
Meanwhile, Mbala’s presence underneath saw La Salle outrebounding Ateneo, 49-45. Black and Chibueze Ikeh grabbed a combined 17 boards for the Eagles, but rookie big man Isaac, who was Ateneo’s hero in beating Far Eastern University in the semifinals, was held to just two.
“We just wanted to limit (Ateneo’s) rebounds as a team. All of them are good rebounders,” said Green Archers coach Aldin Ayo of the key to their game witnessed by 16,712 paying fans.
La Salle moved ahead, 64-59, off two charities and a drive from Mbala, but Ateneo stayed within range on Ikeh’s penetrations.
The Eagles had a chance to overtake the Archers after Teng’s basket with 39.4 seconds left was nullified due to a 24-second violation, and did, 65-64, following Matt Nieto’s drive off Melecio with 34.6 seconds to go.
In the next play, Teng took charge for La Salle and hit the layup for the lead, 15.1 seconds left.
Black, who shot a team-high 12 points, tried to take the lead back for Ateneo, but Teng got in the way. Kib Montalbo, who only had four points, then put La Salle out of harm’s way with a free throw, 3.3 ticks left.
“I guess it was just that we were intimidated by La Salle’s press. It was good. We caught up. But La Salle’s start was bad for us, they went up 16-2. We could have avoided it,” said Ateneo skipper Thirdy Ravena, who spoke on behalf of coach Tab Baldwin.
In the women’s finals, National University weathered a late rally by La Salle and came away with a 77-74 victory to take Game One.
The Lady Bulldogs outscored the Lady Archers, 28-10, in the third quarter, helping them withstand a fourth-quarter La Salle comeback.
Gemma Miranda tallied 23 points, 15 boards, five assists, and two steals to lead the national team-loaded NU, which stretched their unbeaten run this season to 15 games.
The two-time defending champion Lady Bulldogs can take the crown and a sweep of all their games this season if they take Game Two on Wednesday.
Khate Castillo scored 11 of her team-high 18 points in the second half to lead the Lady Archers.