There were several ‘what if’s’ for the DLSU Green Archers in Season 80. “What if Ben Mbala didn’t play for Cameroon in the 2017 Afrobasket and sophomore Aljun Melecio didn’t contact dengue? Would their preparations heading into the UAAP been better instead of an up-and-down start and 5-2 record after the first round?”
“What if the Green Archers weren’t held scoreless in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the 4th quarter in Game One of the finals (final score 70-76)?” And most importantly, “what if Ateneo’s Isaac Go didn’t convert an open three-pointer with 24.7 seconds remaining in Game Three to to seal the Blue Eagles’ 9th championship?”
2017 was supposed to be the year, once again, for the Green and White. Despite losing three core veterans in Jeron Teng, Thomas Torres, and Jason Perkins to the professional league, La Salle was still a complete and deep team headlined by the reigning MVP Ben Mbala and utilizing then-head coach Aldin Ayo’s Mayhem brand of defense.
Learning how to play minus Mbala in the first two games and then re-learning how to play with him in the next play dates resulted into an experimental, trial-and-error stage for the Green Archers in their first seven games. Their surprise 87-98 first round loss to UP and one-point defeat to Ateneo were quickly remedied by the time the second round ended.
Sweeping the second half of the eliminations after beating Ateneo, 79-76, La Salle not only had momentum by their side heading into the playoffs but they also prevented the Blue Eagles from going 14-0 and entering the finals outright.
Armed with a twice-to-beat advantage against number three-seed Adamson Falcons, Mbala and company needed a fourth-quarter rally in the final 10 minutes after trailing 54-63 at the end of the third quarter. Mayhem defense, the calling card of the team for the past two seasons, came to the rescue as it enabled La Salle to outscore AdU, 28-12, in the final frame and book their second straight finals ticket.
Every game in the best-of-three finals series had similar lead-ups for the Green Archers, but each had its own ending. In Game One, DLSU, with 2:32 remaining in the fourth, was trailing 70-71 but went scoreless the rest of the way to give Ateneo the 1-0 series lead. They would trail by a bigger margin in Game 2, 28-49 with 3:23 to go in the second period, before catching fire in the third frame and eventually tie the series with a 92-83 win.
The Green Archers would once again start flat and trail for most of the first three periods in Game Three but would ultimately tie the score at 66-all heading into the the last 10 minutes of the men’s basketball tournament. The tense final period had Ateneo taking a 80-70 lead before La Sale would respond with a 10-2 run to make things interesting with 48.9 seconds to go.
Watching a replay of Game Three on YouTube, these were the players on the floor: Nieto brothers, Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and Anton Asistio for AdMU; Melecio, Kib Montalbo, Ricci Rivero, Andrei Caracut, and Mbala for the Green and White. On paper, every position seemed like a good match-up whoever decides to make plays and shoot the ball.
With the shot clock at 7.6 seconds, Matt Nieto hands the ball to Ravena. Go sets a screen and his defender, Mbala, switches to Ravena, leaving Ravena’s previous defender, team captain Kib Montalbo to defend the much taller 6’8 Go. With 5.4 seconds to go, Thirdy drives to lane and draws three defenders. Pivots. Passes to an open Go. Swish.
The very potent potion, Mayhem defense, eventually served as the dagger against La Salle in Season 80. Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin eventually figured out how to beat Ayo a year after getting swept by the same team at the same venue.
In just a few weeks after the confetti rained inside the Smart Araneta Coliseum for the Blue Eagles, Aldin Ayo would tender his resignation and take his talents to Espanya and the UST Tigers; Ben Mbala, citing UAAP eligibility rules, move on from DLSU to play professionally in foreign leagues; and the Rivero brothers and Brent Paraiso “go on leave” from the Green Archers and eventually leave the team for good.
*Note: Another notable incident that happened just a few weeks before the formal start of the season was a brawl that took place in the 2017 Kadayawan tournament in Davao. The La Salle-FEU match had to be cut short in the third quarter as both school’s benches stormed the court after several foul plays and unsportsmanlike fouls.
The episode, while serving as a black eye for both schools, also served as a terrific hype machine for the UAAP men’s basketball tournament as the Green Archers and the Taramaws were set to face against each other during opening weekend.