The Green Archers’ back-to-back title aspirations would now need to go the full championship route after DLSU dropped the first game of the finals of Season 80, 70-76, at the Mall of Asia Arena. Despite spitfire guard Aljun Melecio erupting for 24 points, two-time MVP Ben Mbala was held to just eight points and battled foul trouble throughout the match as La Salle would need to win the next two games in this best-of-three matchup.

A Melecio jumper with 2:32 in the fourth inched La Salle closer at 70-71. Unfortunately, the offense never got comfortable and properly executed in the next plays; leading to bad shots and zero field goals until the final buzzer. DLSU was gaining momentum at that time after trailing 59-69 at the middle of the fourth and was a Thirdy Ravena-putback away from taking the lead.

An and-one basket off a 2-on-1 by Ateneo big man Isaac Go with 10.4 seconds finally sealed Game 1 in favour of the Blue Eagles. La Salle will need to win the next game of this series on Wednesday to force a rubber match and extend this series.

Facing each other in the championship round for the sixth time, neither team allowed the other to get a head start as Melecio’s 360-degree layup was answered by Ravena’s jumper for an 8-all score. La Salle then went cold for the next three minutes, allowing the Blue Eagles to go on a 8-0 run en route to a 16-8 lead. DLSU would go on to score just two more field goals in the first quarter: a Melecio triple and Mbala jump shot the rest of the period and found themselves staring at a 14-26 deficit.

It didn’t help that the Green Archers gifted their Katipunan counterparts with 12 freebies (8/12) while Ateneo’s tight interior defense limited La Salle and Big Ben’s inside attack to just two charity attempts.

Switching tactics to try to match Ateneo’s physicality, head coach Aldin Ayo inserted co-team captain Prince Rivero together with Mbala and Abu Tratter entering the second period. Pushing their weight inside the shaded lane, the trio combined to score all 13 DLSU points in a 13-6 run as the defending champions finally answered the Blue Eagle’s early knockout punches.

Melecio, slowly recovering and finding his shooting form after a bout with dengue, broke out of his slump. His back-to-back threes in a two-minute span trimmed AdMU’s lead to just 36-34 with 2:00 left. After the Blue Eagles once again capitalized on La Salle’s foul problems, shooting 7/12 from the charity stripe and taking a 34-43 lead, another DLSU frontline member, sophomore Justine Baltazar, made back-to-back baskets sandwich by an Mbala free throw for a 39-43 halftime deficit.

Despite keeping Ateneo’s shooters in check, the Green Archers were burned by the 20 offensive rebounds that the Blue Eagles corralled, gifting them with 14 second-chance points. Overall, La Salle shot better from the field (26/61, 42.6%) compared to AdMU’s 25/64 (39%) was lost the battle of the boards 37-45.

Mbala was clearly a marked man and was way below his Season 80 average of 23 points against Ateneo. Ricci Rivero tallied 10 points, three rebounds, and a couple of highlight plays. La Salle’s frontline rotation of Tratter, Santi Santillan, Prince, and Baltazar combined to score 25 points but got little else from the rest of the team sans a off-a-steal, round-the-waist, and-one layup by team captain Kib Montalbo for three points.

The minus-11 disparity in the free throw attempt department, and nine more makes played a big role not only on the final outcome game but also the rhythm of La Salle’s Mayhem system. The comeback wins in their two previous wins against the same Blue Eagle team (eliminations) and Adamson Soaring Falcons (Final Four) wasn’t replicated this time as Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin adjusted well after DLSU halted their 13-game winning streak.

To win DLSU’s UAAP title no. 10, the team would need to get Big Ben going early in Game Two while also needing to jumpstart their game once the ball is tossed in center court. Limiting their fouls and preventing the Eagles from going to the charity stripe, as well as boxing out to prevent offensive rebounds will be key adjustments heading into November 29.

DLSU 70 – Melecio 24, Ri. Rivero 10, Mbala 8, Tratter 7, Santillan 7, Ra. Rivero 7, Baltazar 4, Montalbo 3, Caracut 0, Go 0, Tero 0, Paraiso 0.

AdMU 76 – Ravena 12, J. Nieto 11, M. Nieto 11, Asistio 10, Tolentino 9, Black 7, Verano 5, Go 5, Ikeh 4, Tio 2, Mamuyac 0, Mendoza 0, Porter 0.

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