Capping off the first round of the 80th season of the UAAP will be a game that will feature one of the most celebrated rivalries in Philippine sports as the DLSU Green Archers will face off against archrivals the ADMU Blue Eagles on Sunday, 4pm, at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
A win for the Lasallians will give them a share of the top spot in the standings with a 6-1 slate alongside the Blue Eagles, while a loss will see them finish the first round with five wins and two losses.
Season 79 Finals
The last time both teams played against each other in the UAAP was back in the Finals of Season 79. The Green Archers edged out the Blue Eagles in Game 1, 67-65, carried by the heroics of Jeron Teng and Kib Montalbo, who both excelled on both ends of the floor in the last 34.6 seconds of the game. Teng made a clutch layup and had a huge block on Aaron Black, while Montalbo stole the ball away from Thirdy Ravena and knocked down the free throw that sealed the win for the Lasallians.
Game 2 of the Finals saw the Green-and-White win by seven points to give Jason Perkins, Julian Sargent, Thomas Torres, and Teng, who was named the Finals MVP, a wonderful send-off. It was the ninth men’s basketball championship for the Taft-based squad and their first under head coach Aldin Ayo.
Since then, the two teams have also met in the FilOil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup, wherein the Blue Eagles defeated the Green Archers, 80-78, after a clutch four-point play by Ravena in the dying moments of the game proved to be the difference between the two teams. In the game, ADMU proved to have the superior outside shooting but it was La Salle that dominated inside the shaded area.
Even with the departure of Mark Dyke and the graduation of last year’s seniors, Ayo still has enough firepower to compete with any team in the league. Reigning season MVP Ben Mbala has been playing sublime basketball so far, averaging 33.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, and 2.3 BPG in just 29 minutes per game. Aljun Melecio accumulated 49 points in the team’s first two games, without Mbala, but has struggled as of late, even sitting out the last two games due to health reasons. With the sophomore struggling, Andrei Caracut and Jollo Go have stepped-up their game to compensate for Melecio’s missing contributions on the offensive end. Caracut has scored in double digits in the last three games, while Go exploded for 19 points against the NU Bulldogs.
Helping out Mbala inside the paint will be the steady veteran presence of Prince Rivero as well as Abu Tratter, who scored 24 points, a UAAP career high, in their last game against the UE Red Warriors. Former University of Visayas standout Santi Santillian has been a welcome addition to the team this year as his tenacious work rate in getting rebounds has eased the burden on Mbala. His fellow rookies, Gabe Capacio, Josh Gonzales, and Ramil Tero, also showed incredible effort in the game against UST to stake their claim for more minutes this season, which gives Coach Ayo a great problem to have.
Meanwhile, the Season 79 runners-up have lost G-Boy Babilonia, Adrian Wong, and Shaun Ildefonso this season but have gained the services of multiple talented players, namely Troy Mallillin, Tyler Tio, and two former Blue Eaglets in BJ Andrade and Gian Mamuyac. The Katipunan-based squad surprised everyone with their run in the Finals last year without a go-to-guy, as they shared the offensive responsibilities as a team. Ravena, however, has upped his game to another level this season to separate himself from the pack.
Ravena’s supporting cast has been in great rhythm recently with fellow starters Chibueze Ikeh, Vince Tolentino, Anton Asistio, and Matt Nieto playing at a high level, reducing the burden on the former Juniors MVP en route to an unblemished record so far this season for Ateneo.
Keys to winning
The Nieto twins, Mike and Matt, have been playing spectacular basketball so far with the latter orchestrating the offense at the point guard spot while the former, who is in great shape, has been an impact player off the bench after bringing down his weight from last season. For DLSU, Montalbo will be vital in disrupting the playmaking of Ma. Nieto while the Green Archers should be wary of allowing Mi. Nieto to hit outside shots and grab offensive rebounds.
Mbala will also need to outplay Ikeh to give La Salle the advantage in the import match-up. Renowned for a strong inside presence, both players have extended their range this season as they have been hitting three-point shots in the last few games. This new offensive arsenal will allow Mbala and Ikeh to draw each other out of the paint and allow their teammates to have an easier time near the basket.
Defense will be the main concern for the Green Archers going into this game as they are only holding their opponents to almost 91 points per game, and with the way the Blue Eagles are sharing their offensive responsibilities so far, the Green-and-White might have a difficult time in containing their archrivals. For La Salle, though, even if there is a bit of a struggle on the defensive end, the reigning champions have been scoring easily and in bunches, breaching the 100-point mark twice already this season.
Perfect execution on both ends of the floor will be crucial for the Blue Eagles as they cannot afford to commit too many turnovers against the “Mayhem” system of La Salle. Former Blue Eaglet phenom Jolo Mendoza, Tio, and Ma. Nieto will be the catalysts in breaking the full-court press while Ikeh will be backed-up by Isaac Go in slowing down Mbala.