Facing their biggest challenge in the Aldin Ayo-era, the DLSU Green Archers climbed back from 21 points down to send the UAAP Season 80 men’s basketball Finals to a deciding Game Three. Making up for last Saturday’s 70-76 Game 1 loss, the defending champions can still make it back-to-back titles after the morale-boosting 92-83 victory at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

The final 1:50 of the first half and the whole third period proved to be La Salle’s most crucial moment in this season; overhauling a 32-51 deficit by outscoring the Blue Eagles 36-8 as newly-minted back-to-back UAAP MVP Ben Mbala, Mythical Five member Ricci Rivero and the rest of the team lived up to their promise of extending this series.

For the second straight Finals game, the Green Archers look lost on both offense and defense at the start; opening the game by giving up five three-point baskets while only scoring five field goals en route to a 15-32 first quarter deficit. Mbala and Rivero once again encountered early foul trouble and could only muster a combined four points.

Things got worse in the next period as Rivero picked up his third and fourth fouls in a three-minute span. Needing to be subbed out of the game, the sophomore guard was left in tears as he neared the La Salle bench; needing to be consoled and encouraged by his teammates and the DLSU coaching staff.

As his big lineup couldn’t get the job done and the Green Archers trailing big, 24-45, Ayo utilized a small-ball five consisting of Aljun Melecio, Kib Montalbo, Andre Caracut, Santi Santillan, and Mbala to speed the game up and try to salvage Game Two.

An Mbala alley-oop from an inbound pass by Montalbo fired up the team and instantly woke up the green side of Araneta, triggering 10 straight points by the defending champions to keep the Blue Eagles well within their reach, 42-51, at intermission. The defense also tightened up as the “Man of Steal” and team captain Montalbo rallied his team with his words and play on the court.

The rally would continue after the break as the Green Archers slowly crept back, whittling away Ateneo’s lead with every inspired basket during a 14-5 rally. Rivero’s eight points in the third period alone tied the total output of the entire AdMU squad, but together with Caracut’s seven became a solid one-two punch that knocked the Blue Eagles out for good once La Salle got the lead, 60-58, at the 2:11 mark.

Smiling broadly after making highlight plays and wipping away the tears from the first half, Ricci would finish with 18 points on 8/11 shooting, five rebounds, and four assists. While Mbala bounced back from a sub-par, UAAP career-low, eight-point outing last game with 20 points on 9/15 shooting, 16 rebounds, two assists, three steals, and four blocks.

Caracut also recovered from Game 1’s zero-point showing by being more aggressive and scoring 13 points and grabbing three rebounds. Perhaps no play showed how much the Green Archers desperately wanted to win this game as how Caracut wrestled the ball with the Blue Eagle’s 6’8” slotman Isaac Go with 4:30 to go in the fourth to forced a jump ball.

DLSU shot better from the field, making 48.5% of their shots (32/66) while limiting AdMU to just 38.36% (28/73). Even though the Katipunan-based squad were +3 in three-pointers made (7-4), La Salle was able to limit Ateneo to just a single conversion after giving up six in the first twenty minutes.

Ateneo could only get as close as five points in the payoff period as the Archers carried over their solid play in the third period. Rivero’s last layup with 4:01 to go gave La Salle their biggest lead of the game, 85-72, before proper game and time management ensured that both teams would meet again on Sunday at the same venue.

DLSU 92 – Mbala 20, Ri. Rivero 18, Caracut 13, Melecio 12, Montalbo 9, Santillan 8, Ra. Rivero 8, Tratter 4, Tero 0, Go 0, Baltazar 0.

AdMU 83 – Ravena 20, Black 15, Asistio 13, Go 11, J. Nieto 10, Ikeh 6, Mendoza 5, Tolentino 2, Tio 1, Verano 0, M. Nieto 0, Mamuyac 0, Porter 0.

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