Even with reigning league MVP Ben Mbala inactive, the De La Salle Green Archers opened their UAAP Season 80 title defense with a victory over the FEU Tamaraws, 95-90, on Sunday, September 10, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
With Mbala out due to his national team duties for Cameroon in the FIBA Afrobasket and a pre-season brawl between both teams surrounding the matchup, a lot of eyes were on La Salle to see how the defending champions would perform in their debut. Although some improvements are necessary, it was evident that DLSU passed its first challenge of the young campaign.
Led by last year’s Rookie of the Year Aljun Melecio’s 29 points, La Salle won its season opener coming off winning the title for the first time in 5 tries. Andrei Caracut also played well with 16 points, while Kib Montalbo – who was sick this week and only started practicing three days before the game – added 12 points.
Required to step up with Mbala absent, Abu Tratter played well and earned the praise of head coach Aldin Ayo with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Leonard Santillan, a DLSU newcomer, also turned heads with 9 points and 7 boards in limited minutes while displaying an outside touch.
La Salle raced off to a quick start by building a 29-11 lead after one period thanks to the hot shooting of Melecio. The Green Archers then stayed in control the rest of the way and avoided a collapse when the Tams made a late-game run.
Montalbo – who hit three big three-pointers in the third period to keep his team in control – had a game-changing steal with under a minute to go which allowed Melecio and Caracut to seal the contest at the foul stripe.
DLSU hit 11-of-36 from deep and forced 22 FEU turnovers, but allowed the Tamaraws to shoot 48.6% from the field and coughed up 23 turnovers of its own.
La Salle will aim for a 2-0 start to the season when it takes on National University next Saturday. Depending on how far Cameroon advances at Afrobasket, Ayo says there is a possibility Mbala will suit up against the Bulldogs, who won their opener against UE yesterday.
With Mbala improving his outside game, Ayo indicated La Salle may use the big man as a perimeter player as well this season.
La Salle 95 – Melecio 29, Caracut 16, Montalbo 12, Tratter 11, Santillan 9, P. Rivero 7, Baltazar 4, Go 3, Paraiso 2, R. Rivero 2, Capacio 0.
FEU 90 – Dennison 21, Comboy 13, Orizu 12, Tuffin 10, Cani 7, Tolentino 7, Parker 7, Inigo 5, Escoto 5, Trinidad 3, Nunag 0, Ebona 0, Bienes 0