The De La Salle Green Archers came so close to seeing their season of dominance turn into a season on the brink before Jeron Teng’s heroics gave them a 67-65 victory over the bitter rival Ateneo Blue Eagles in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 79 Finals.
Lasallians heaved a sigh of relief after Teng took advantage of a Thirdy Ravena turnover to convert a scoop layup that put them ahead, 66-65, with 15.1 seconds, before blocking Aaron Black’s jumper to move one win away from securing their ninth championship in the league.
While many are expecting La Salle’s grand coronation in Wednesday’s Game 2 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, Ateneo has shown that it won’t just roll over and die, thus a potential do-or-die match is a likely possibility.
That is why the Green Archers are bracing for another difficult encounter underneath the bright lights of the Big Dome.
Here are some keys to victory if you're La Salle and want to end the series later today:
Sustain the lead
La Salle took advantage of what seemed to be a wide-eyed Ateneo squad at the start, resulting in a 16-2 lead. Ravena admitted they were rattled with the Green Archers’ trademark pressure defense known as “Mayhem” while center Isaac Go described being in the finals as “overwhelming,” thus the jittery start.
But the Green Archers saw their lead slowly dwindle in the second quarter when the Blue Eagles suddenly pulled to within six. La Salle was able to maintain the tempo and extended the margin to double digits in the third, only to see Ateneo mount a comeback that later resulted in Matt Nieto’s basket that gave the blue side its only lead at 65-64 late in the game.
Teng’s clutch plays enabled La Salle to emerge victorious, but coach Aldin Ayo expressed concern over the lost lead, saying his team failed to sustain the strong defensive start as well as some struggles on offense.
Ayo and company can only hope that they can control the tempo after the opening tip and make it more difficult for the Blue Eagles all the way to the end.
Better opportunities for Mbala
Ben Mbala, who will receive his Most Valuable Player award before Game 2, was far from pleased with his performance in the opener. The statistics backed up his dismay as he went 4-of-13 from the field despite finishing with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Mbala also had five turnovers which he cited on him keeping the ball longer once Ateneo’s double or triple teams came in effect, while his dismal percentage was due to his shot selections.
But the Cameroonian did have some moments of brilliance whenever he opted for high percentage baskets normally seen in him instead of forcing his shots. He may have to upped his game against Go, undersized Raffy Verano and Chibueze Ikeh, who did a solid job against Mbala.
Another player stepping up
Ayo stressed the importance of having at least one player delivering his usual game for Wednesday’s encounter, not just his most trusted players in Mbala, Teng and Kib Montalbo.
Rookie of the Year Aljun Melecio also had a good offensive showing, hitting key outside shots that kept La Salle ahead amid Ateneo rallies in the second half. Julian Sargent had his moments on defense, particularly when he was inserted in the starting lineup.
Maybe Abu Tratter can reduce Mbala’s workload, Tommy Torres veering away from his inconsistencies or some seldom-used player rising to Ayo’s challenge and become an unexpected gambit.
Play the team that inflicts mayhem
Ayo’s mayhem is symbolized by La Salle’s ability to frustrate opponents with its pressure defense. But the Green Archers are more deadly when their system of having better movement results in baskets.
Followers have seen the best and for some time worst from La Salle. The 12-0 start displayed how the Green Archers were a cut among the rest, but they also made themselves fell victim to their invinsibility when their unbeaten run ended with a Nov. 5 loss to the Blue Eagles.
It followed with inconsistent showing against FEU in the last elimination round match and Adamson in the Final Four, prompting Ayo to call out his players in public.
Game 1 showed that if they are dead serious on getting a win, no matter what the circumstances, then the Green Archers will be seen hoisting the championship at the Big Dome floor and perhaps establish themselves as one of the best teams in UAAP history.