Facing their biggest deficit of UAAP Season 79, 43-52, midway through the third quarter, it seemed like the disciplined and deliberate half-court pace of the NU Bulldogs was threatening to blemish DLSU’s perfect 3-0 record. With both Jeron Teng and Ben Mbala saddled with foul trouble, coach Aldin Ayo called rookie Ricci Rivero’s number and relied on improved defensive effort in the fourth to survive the Bulldog’s threat, 75-66.
With a thick Sunday La Salle crowd, and both teams sporting perfect records (NU with a 2-0 win-loss card), the game had a playoff feel right from the start, and both teams played like the men’s basketball championship was already on the line. Jeron and Ben were carrying the team on their backs in the first 20 minutes of the game, scoring 22 of the team’s 37 first half points.
After a 37-all tie at intermission, the balanced and fundamentally-sound National U unleashed a 15-6 run, with five different players scoring from either short-range baskets or from long distance. A stunned and silent Green and White gallery, including yours truly, were suddenly scratching their heads on the missed shots, blown defensive covers, and costly turnovers.
Coach Ayo admits to be a “gambling” man, but for a stretch in the third quarter, the Sorsogon-native might have ran his and DLSU’s mayhem luck out against his coaching mentor in NU coach Eric Altamirano. With a nothing-to-lose scenario, Ayo inserted Rivero, whose back-to-back buckets energized the team and trimmed the Bulldogs lead to 54-52 at the end of the third period.
Still trailing by one at the 7:07 mark, number 21 heated up; teaming with big man Abu Tratter and Rivero, the trio went on a 12-4 rally that finally turned the momentum to DLSU’s favor. Ricci’s euro-step, highlight-worthy layup gave La Salle a 68-61 lead and finally broke the back of the Bulldogs.
The great thing about rookies like Ricci, coming from winning high school programs, they still have winning mentalities and attitudes; practically not expecting to play major minutes this season, any chance to show their wares and contribute is already a bonus for the team’s greenhorns.
A put back by Mbala and a dagger three from Kib Montalbo gave La Salle its first double digit lead, 73-63, and put the final touches to win number four in UAAP Season 79.
La Salle came out victorious in the war of attrition, capitalizing on NU’s 29 turnovers and converting them into 33 fast break points. The bench (46 total points) was a huge advantage for DLSU as Jeron’ 23 points alone outscored the total 20 NU bench points.
The most import factor that won the game for the Green and White was limiting NU import Alfred Aroga to two points and three rebounds from the combined defensive efforts of Mbala, Tratter, rookie Justine Baltaza, and even Prince Rivero. Ben and Abu, DLSU starting big men, also nullified the 15 point-output of former Green Archer Matt Salem with a combined effort of 22 points, 23 rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
Like steel sharpening steel, it’s good that DLSU is being tested and facing adversity early in the tournament. The game had the intensity and pressure of a do-or-die, Game Three of the Finals, or a match-up against the Ateneo Blue Eagles; an experience that may prove valuable down the road to Mbala, Ricci, and the rest of the young players on the team.
Sweep? What sweep?
Despite still being undefeated at the midway point of the first round, coach Ayo is the first to ignore thoughts of a first-round sweep, let alone 14-0 sweep of the elimination round. After turning the ball over 21 times and give-up more fouls (24-19), the team certainly can still improve and sharpen their play in the next six days before playing former DLSU coach Franz Pumaren and his Adamson Falcons on Saturday.
Animo La Salle!