De La Salle University banked on crafty defense to slip past Ateneo de Manila University, 67-65, in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 79 men’s basketball tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City on Saturday.
The Green Archers almost lost after squandering the lead it accumulated most part of the games but were able to escape the Blue Eagles by scoring crucial baskets near the end of the match.
“It’s winning time and I have veteran players who can play in crunch time and endgame,” said La Salle coach Aldin Ayo during the postgame interview. “We just prevented them from getting a lot of rebounds and there’s nothing particular on any of their players.”
La Salle quickly established a 19-6 lead at the end of first period which ballooned to 36-26 at halftime. But Ateneo made a strong comeback in the second half behind the combined effort of Adrian Wong and center Chibueze Ikeh.
“We lost our 14-point lead and they were starting to get their momentum, so we returned to our usual scheme and we didn’t rely on individual play,” added Ayo. “Individual plays are too predictable. We’ve been doing our defense for the whole year so we have to do this in this game.”
Cameroonian Ben Mbala led La Salle with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Aljun Melecio finished with 12 points while Jeron Teng had 10 points to bring the Green Archers one win a way from securing their ninth overall title in the UAAP.
The Blue Eagles, on the other hand, are also aiming for their ninth overall title.
“Looking at the stat sheets I have five turnovers so I need to be more aggressive by attacking the basket instead of hitting outside shot,” said Mbala, who scored 12-of-18 in the foul line.
Wong allowed Ateneo to grab the lead under the last two-minute mark, 65-64, but the team captain Teng scored a go-ahead basket with only 15.1 seconds to push La Salle ahead, 66-65. Teng blocked Aaron Black’s crucial jumper in the ensuing play allowing the Green Archers to seal the win.
Guard Kib Montalbo provided La Salle with a two-point edge in the dying seconds after splitting his two free throws.
“I just had to step up because I didn’t get my flaws in the game so I need to get back on defense,” said Teng, referring to his big block on Black. “My go-ahead basket is just an instinct. I just saw an opening that’s why I took it and it was good that it went in.”
Black finished with 12 points and eight rebounds to lead Ateneo.
A total of 16,712 fans watched Game 1 live.
Game 2 is set 3:30 pm on Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.