Reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP) Ben Mbala makes De La Salle University even deadlier as the six-foot-seven Cameroonian makes his season debut in Season 80 University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball tournament on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena .
Mbala and La Salle square off with Adamson University in the main game at 4 p.m. while National University (NU) hopes to bounce back from a loss as it meets the winless University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the opener at 2 p.m.
Mbala missed the Green Archers’ first two games after representing Cameroon in the FIBA AfroBasket 2017 where he led his squad to a quarterfinal finish.
But Mbala’s absence was hardly felt by the defending champions as La Salle went undefeated in that stretch, beating Far Eastern University (95-90) and the Bulldogs (115-109) behind the consistent plays of Aljun Melecio, Ricci Rivero and Kib Montalbo.
“Hopefully with the return of Ben, our game improves. There will be less adjustments on our part because that’s our team. I have confidence with my players,” said Green Archers head coach Aldin Ayo.
“But it does not mean if we have Ben, automatically we will win. We have very good coaches here in the UAAP and I’m sure they’re going to adjust,” he added.
Without Mbala, Ayo relied mostly on his guards in scoring led by the trio of Rivero, Montalbo and Melencio while his bench also played crucial roles in keeping their record unblemished.
They will face their last season’s Final Four opponent Soaring Falcons, who are fresh from an 88-81 victory over the Growling Tigers to improve to 1-1.
Adamson welcomed the return of big man Papi Sarr against UST and the center finished with 10 points in just 11 minutes of play.
“He’s (Sarr) a bit rusty because he’s out for a couple of weeks. He’s not yet 100 percent and the rhythm and time are not there yet,” said Pumaren.
“La Salle is still the favored team and let’s see if we can compete against them,” the former La Salle mentor added.
Rob Manalang and Kurt Lojera combined for 35 points in their win against UST to bounce back from an ugly 65-85 loss to league-leading Ateneo de Manila University.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also gun for a bounce-back win against the Growling Tigers, who have yet to strike a W in their win-loss column.
UST and University of the East are lingering at the bottom of the team standings with identical 0-2 win-loss records.