The game looked bleak for the DLSU Green Archers entering the fourth quarter of today’s matchup. Down 54-66, the defending champions clawed their way back by hitting their charities and clamping down on defense to foil the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ elimination round sweep aspirations and win 79-76 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Still trailing 69-76 at the 2:24 mark, DLSU hit six straight charities sandwiched by a Ben Mbala hook shot and Kib Montalbo conversion to score the last ten points of the game. On the other end, Abu Tratter forced a key turnover with 1:48 remaining and teamed up with sophomore Ricci Rivero to deny Ateneo’s Anton Asistio’s last attempt to force overtime.

Despite Ateneo seemingly figuring out how to handle and beat DLSU head coach Aldin Ayo’s Mayhem system, conquering the now 13-1 Blue Eagles erases the stigma of the poor late-game management and decision-making of La Salle in the first round.

With the victory, the 12-2 Taft-based squad, armed with a twice-to-beat-advantage, now faces the third seed Adamson Soaring Falcons for the second time in a row in the Final Four. With a week to prepare (Nov. 18), La Salle has all the momentum and confidence after sweeping the second round of the eliminations, including going 2-0 against their Final Four counterparts.

Rookie Santi Santillan was the lone bright spot for the first few minutes of the first quarter, using his impeccable timing and keen nose for the ball for second chance points. Back-to-back triples by Aljun Melecio and Jollo Go gave DLSU a 14-10 lead at the 3:30 mark but the Blue Eagles finished the period stronger by unleashing a 12-3 run.

After being held without a field goal in the first 10 minutes of action, Big Ben flexed his muscles in the second quarter, pushing his weight around the paint and bruising any and every Ateneo defender towards 13 points. After giving up seven three-pointers at intermission during the first round, La Salle’s perimeter players tightened up their defense and gave up only three conversions for a 37-35 halftime lead.

Second chance points (17-6) and winning the free throw battle (20/29 vs. AdMU’s 13/19) more than made up for the Green Archer’s 39.7% field goal shooting and Ateneo scoring 36 points inside the paint. It was a far better start for the defending champions compared their October 8 setback where a 16-28 first quarter deficit made all the difference in the 75-76 loss.

After a Melecio jumper and Ricci River reverse gave La Salle its biggest lead at 43-37, Ateneo uncorked an 18-2 run in a four-minute stretch to give momentum and a 55-45 lead to the Katipunan-based squad.

Mbala, the reigning UAAP MVP, had a herculean effort after posting 28 points, 19 rebounds (eight offensive), six steals, and five blocks. Rivero, whose two free throws with 8.9 seconds remaining were probably the biggest of his young UAAP career, finished with 21 points, five rebounds, and two steals.

Notes: In past seasons, La Salle had two chances to sweep the elimination round but was foiled by separate Ateneo squads: 2002 during the heydays of Mike Cortez, Mac Cardona, and Joseph Yeo, and last Season 79’s 71-83 second round loss.

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

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

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