The DLSU Green Archers let back-to-back titles slip from their grasps, losing Game 3 of the UAAP Season 80 men’s basketball finals to the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 86-88, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. After entering the fourth quarter tied at 66-all, La Salle managed to score only a single field goal in the first 7:45 while giving up 14 points to AdMU, a hole that eventually proved to be too hard to climb back.

Despite facing a 70-80 deficit with just a few minutes to spare, the Archers would stage one last rally. Two threes by Aljun Melecio and Andrei Caracut sandwiched a 10-2 run that was unfortunately derailed by a huge triple by Ateneo slotman Isaac Go with 24.7 seconds to. With time and score against the then-defending champions, desperation heaves by Melecio and Caracut could only delay the eventual crowning of a new UAAP champion.

Game Three lived up to its promise of an epic matchup for all the marbles. For the third straight game, DLSU started flat and trailed by once against by double digits, 14-24, at the end of the first period. Two-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala was held scoreless while the Blue Eagles could do no wrong in the first 10 minutes of play.

Things started to get better for La Salle in the second period and even grabbed their first taste of the lead, 38-37, at the 0:56 mark after a put back by Prince Rivero. A late 7-0 run punctuated by Blue Eagle Anton Asistio’s buzzer beater with just 0.9 seconds remaining once again gave momentum back to the Katipunan-based squad.

It was a nip-and-tuck affair after intermission as either team lead by more than seven points and both squads wanting to bring home the UAAP trophy. At the final buzzer though, only La Salle was left as the side wondering what went wrong and what else could they have done differently.

The ill-advised threes (8/33 total) and turnovers (18 vs. Ateneo’s 12) that led to 15 fast break points make for good conversation starters or “what-if” questions. Starting the game on the wrong foot, for the past four games including the Final Four contest against the Adamson Soaring Falcons, doesn’t help either.

The baseline drive-drop pass to a cutting big man killed DLSU all game long as AdMU capitalized on La Salle’s ultra-aggressive Mayhem defense. The timing of AdMU’s offensive rebounds also got the better of the Green Archers; none bigger than the two that resulted into back-to-back threes by Matt Nieto and Asistio to give Ateneo a 68-74 lead.

Big Ben led the team with 19 points, 14 rebounds, two steals, and three blocks. Melecio back stopped with 16 points, going 3/11 from beyond the arc, while Ricci Rivero had 14, Caracut 13, and Santi Santillan posted a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive).

Title no. 10 would have to wait for the Green and White community as both La Salle and Ateneo are now tied with nine titles each. Head coach Aldin Ayo and his Mayhem system would need to improve in the next 10 months as it was clear that opposing coaches, especially Ateneo counterpart Tab Baldwin, have already figured out how to counter La Salle’s offensive and defensive schemes.

No player in the current roster with graduate this year so expect the Green Archers to improve in year three of Ayo’s Mayhem system; and possible face the same Ateneo team for a third time in the finals.

Notes: This is also Ayo’s first series loss in the collegiate ranks after guiding Letran to the title in NCAA Season 91 as a rookie coach and DLSU last year.

UAAP action shifts to the second half sports that are scheduled to start on February.

Animo La Salle!

DLSU 86 – Mbala 19, Melecio 16, Ri Rivero 14, Caracut 13, Santillan 11, Tratter 4, Go 3, Montalco 3, Ra. Rivero 2, Tero 1, Baltazar 0.

Ateneo 88 – Ravena 17, J. Nieto 14, Ikeh 12, Asistio 11, Tolentino 9, Go 7, Verano 6, Mendoza 5, Black 4, Mamuyac 3, M. Nieto 0.

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