Ateneo de Manila University got the perfect start it wanted but De La Salle University dug deep from its arsenal to pull off an unthinkable come-from-behind Game 2 victory.
As the Blue Eagles were getting ready for their coronation after leading by as much as 21 points in the first half, the Green Archers refused to turn over the crown on Wednesday with an amazing fightback en route to a shocking 92-83 win in Game 2 over Ateneo in Season 80 University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball finals at the jam-packed Araneta Coliseum.
The defending champions erased the 21-point deficit with a 40-10 salvo going into the third period to take a 68-59 lead entering the fourth period. The Blue Eagles never recovered from those solid blows and blew the chance to finish off the Archers and bring home the title.
Ateneo has to finish the fight in the deciding Game 3 on Sunday also at the Big Dome with La Salle enjoying the momentum from its shock win Wednesday.
“Part of it is wanting it more. Our discipline on defense was there and we don’t gamble in the second half. We played with heart in the second half,” said Green Archers deputy coach Miggy Solitaria, who subbed for head coach Aldin Ayo in a post-game interview.
Mbala rebounded from his previous eight-point performance with 20 points to go along with his 16 rebounds, three steals and four blocks while Caracut, who was scoreless in Game 1, added 13 markers, seven in the third period when La Salle stole the momentum from Ateneo.
Ricci Rivero, who had four fouls in the first half, unloaded 12 of his 18 points in the second half where the Green Archers outscored the Blue Eagles, 50-32.
“We’re happy but like what coach said, we don’t celebrate until it’s finish,” said Rivero, who cried after getting his fourth foul late in the second period. “I’m just praying to Him and I think that’s the turning point.”
“We just stick together. I saw my teammates down, struggling but we didn’t give up. We keep on believing,” said Mbala. “We just stick to the game plan and do what coach Aldin told us what to do.”
The Blue Eagles came out firing in the game, hitting six triples, four came from Anton Asistio to race to a 32-13 lead and put it to a 45-24 advantage on Thirdy Ravena’s two free throw off Caracut’s foul with 5:40 left in the second period.
But the Green Archers employed their vaunted mayhem style of play and Mbala and Caracut, both missing in 70-76 loss in Game 1, finally stepped up when La Salle was looking for that one great swing to spark a run.
And it happened with Mbala’s rim-rattling slam late in the second period. La Salle managed to slice the huge lead to a single digit 42-51, entering the break.
The Green Archers, behind Rivero and Caracut, continued with their pressing defense to outscore the Blue Eagles, 26-8, to carry a 68-59 advantage entering the final quarter.
Aaron Black tried to put Ateneo in the thick of things as his three-pointer put the Loyola-based squad within four, 70-74, but La Salle answered with an 11-2 run capped by Rivero’s drive for an 85-72 cushion with more that four minutes remaining.
“We didn’t play well on defense and on our offense we did not execute. When La Salle had that run, the momentum was on them and it was hard to refocus,” said Ateneo assistant Sandy Arespacochaga.
“We have to learn from this game. We still have chance in Game 3. But we have to learn from our mistakes and hopefully it will pay dividends on Sunday.”
Earlier, Mbala received his second MVP and led the Mythical Team that also included his teammate Ricci Rivero, National University’s (NU) Jayjay Alejandro, Ateneo’s Third Ravena, and University of the East’s Alvin Pasaol, who failed to attend the awarding ceremonies.
Fighting Maroon Juan Gomez de Liano was adjudged this season’s Rookie of the year while NU’s Jack Animam was named the MVP in the women’s division.