In their third finals matchup in four years at the FilOil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup, the San Beda College (SBC) Red Lions retook the title after edging the defending champions, the DLSU Green Archers. With a record of five wins and three losses in the elimination round, the team from Taft clinched the last ticket to the quarterfinals in Group A and worked its way back to the finals.
Green Archers Ben Mbala and Ricci Rivero were distinguished as members of the tournament’s Mythical Five. Furthermore, Mbala was also officially awarded as the Best Defensive Player and Most Valuable Player of the cup.
“We cannot dwell on [what we accomplished] last season. We have to come up with new things, we just have to execute them,” said head coach Aldin Ayo after the Green Archers kicked off their campaign with a stunning loss against the Jose Rizal University (JRU) Heavy Bombers. Ben Mbala recorded a double-double of 22 points and 16 rebounds, but it proved futile as the defending champions bowed to the Heavy Bombers, 85-81.
The Green-and-White earned its first win of the tournament when it dispatched the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA (UPHSD), 94-71. In just 21 minutes of play, Mbala was able to score 30 points and grab nine rebounds to lead the way again for La Salle.
The third game of the tournament saw a brawl flare up between the players of the Green Archers and the UST Growling Tigers. A total of 10 players were thrown out of the game, with three from La Salle, and seven from the Growling Tigers. Aljun Melecio and R. Rivero each scored 17 points to complement Mbala’s 21-point performance in the 109-81 win over the team from Espana. “You always have to use your head, whatever you do, your actions must lead to outward purpose, which is to win the game,” Ayo shared after the game.
La Salle played its first and only overtime game of the tournament against the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) Pirates and came out as the victors, 121-119. R. Rivero played one of his best games in the tournament as he led the Green Archers with 23 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
““Every time we play against each other, we have to push each other to the limit para mas matulungan. If you want to help your players or your teammates, you have to push them para matuto,” Ayo said after the Lasallians faced former Green Archers Jeron Teng and Thomas Torres in a tuneup game against the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) D-League’s Flying V Thunder.
After winning against the Thunder, 88-72, the Green Archers faced the NCAA’s (National Collegiate Athletic Association) defending champions, SBC. Former Green Archer Robert Bolick scorched La Salle’s defense as he finished with 27 points, nine rebounds, and six assists to lead the Red Lions to an 82-80 win.
DLSU almost absorbed its third loss of the tournament against the UE Red Warriors, but banked on a late scoring run in the fourth quarter to record a 77-71 win. Justine Baltazar top-scored for La Salle with 15 points alongside three blocks. Santi Santillian also chipped in a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
The seventh game of the tournament for La Salle was a rematch of the UAAP Season 79 Finals as the Green-and-White clashed with its archrivals, the ADMU Blue Eagles. Thirdy Ravena knocked down a crucial three-pointer in the dying seconds of the game to give the Blue Eagles an 80-78 win.
Seeking to bounce back, the Green Archers cruised past the Colegio de San Juan de Letran (CSJL) Knights in their final game of the elimination round. Mbala produced a tournament-high of 45 points and 17 rebounds to seal the victory, 93-77.
“Everything that we do right now [is] all just preparation for the UAAP. We make sure na pagdating sa UAAP, lahat ng dapat trabahuin ay gawin,” Ayo said after the game. The Blue Eagles’ loss to SBC later on the same day allowed La Salle to sneak into the knockout round.
The remaining contenders for the preseason title battled through crossover games between teams from Groups A and B which featured a win-or-go-home format.
La Salle, which concluded as the fourth seed of Group A with a 5-3 win-loss record, faced off against Group B’s top seed in the quarterfinals, the FEU Tamaraws. The Green Archers started off strong and brought the same energy heading into the fourth quarter as they ended the Tamaraws’ preseason campaign. Mbala recorded another double-double with 32 points and 19 rebounds to lead DLSU to a 78-53 win. Melecio also added 13 points, seven assists, and three steals for the Lasallians while Arvin Tolentino and Richard Escoto each had 10 points for FEU in their losing effort.
The semifinals featured another tight contest between DLSU and LPU, but the Green Archers came away with another victory. Ayo drew up a play for Melecio to receive the ball in the left corner during the closing stages of the game, but it resulted in a turnover.
Possession ended up with the Pirates as they raced down to their court. La Salle eventually regained possession as R. Rivero stole the ball and found Andrei Caracut. The incoming third year player then provided a drop pass to Santillian in the paint after a fearless drive to the basket and the power forward was able to score, draw a foul, and convert the bonus free throw to seal a 100-99 win for the reigning UAAP and FilOil champions.
After another close-fought win over LPU, Ayo said, “When you were nearly removed from the tournament and when you are given the chance to come back, you make sure to make the most out of it.”
The Green Archers battled it out once again in a finals matchup against the Red Lions. Although the Lasallians led heading into the fourth quarter, their efforts to win the title were not enough as they fell at the hands of SBC. Both the reigning UAAP and NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) champions aimed to capitalize on their respective opportunities as they traded baskets in what proved to be a close-fought battle.
With eight seconds remaining in the final frame, Bolick converted a three-pointer on the left wing over Santillan which salvaged the win for SBC, 75-72, successively ending La Salle’s bid for back-to-back championships.
Mbala proved his Best Defensive Player and MVP accolades as he had a double-double performance with 25 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks. Aljun Melecio had 14 points and eight rebounds, while Santi Santillan and Ricci Rivero chipped in 12 and 11 points, respectively, in DLSU’s losing effort.
Team captain Kib Montalbo, who was out for majority of the tournament due to injury, stated, “It’s healthy for the team that everyone’s stepping up and I’m happy for them na since nawala si Jeron last year, we’ve improved as a team.”
Ayo also echoed the words of Montalbo as he talked about the contribution of each player while playing within their system.
Having Prince Rivero, and Brent Paraiso also sidelined, Montalbo praised the team for reaching the finals while looking forward to defending their UAAP title. “I think we played well [but] it’s the little things that matter. We’ll savor this loss and for sure we’ll bounce back [in the] UAAP,” he said.
Ayo shared that despite losing their FilOil crown, there have been significant lessons for himself and the team. After joining numerous preseason tournaments he stated, “We were complacent, in FilOil, we started flat. Kung hindi kami nabigyan ng opportunity… hindi kami aabot sa ganito.”
Another key learning for the CSJL alumnus is the improved shooting of Mbala, as the center was able to convert a number of three-pointers throughout the competition. “I always want to be unpredictable, but Ben can hit [those] shots.”
Ayo hopes that his players will learn from their loss to the Red Lions as what they have learned in the past must be kept in the past. He mentioned, “We cannot dwell on [what we accomplished] last season, we’re no longer the champion, tapos na yung 2016. The achievements we’ve had are from last year, this is a whole new ball game.”