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Ateneo’s Matt Nieto was literally bloodied after catching an inadvertent elbow in the face from La Salle’s Ben Mbala, but it was the Ateneo Blue Eagles that drew first blood by defeating the De La Salle Green Archers, 76-70, in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 80 men's basketball finals.
The story of the game was Ateneo’s topnotch, disciplined defense, which limited Mbala to only 8 points, his lowest output in his UAAP career.
Mbala did not see the light of day inside the paint, and was hounded by the Blue Eagles each and every time he touched the ball. He was limited to 7 field goal attempts, converting only 3.
"We couldn't play Ben straight up one-on-one. We needed to come up with schemes. We needed all our five guys to come up and do their roles in order to slow down Ben," said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.
Mbala, the league’s runaway MVP, was visibly upset over the systematic lockdown on his offense. Midway in the second quarter, Mbala and Chibueze Ikeh were slapped with double technical fouls for taunting.
“They (Eagles) were able to get into my head, that is something that shouldn’t happen again,” Mbala said after the game, vowing to bounce back in Game 2.
Due to Mbala’s lackluster play on the offensive side, Aljun Melecio had to carry the scoring load for La Salle. The point guard unleashed one of his best shooting performances of Season 80, but it wasn’t enough against Ateneo’s balanced scoring.
Thirdy Ravena led Ateneo with 12 points while the Nieto brothers, Mike and Matt, scored 11 points apiece. Anton Asistio also chipped in 10 points.
Isaac Go, the hero in Ateneo’s Game 3 win vs FEU, again put on the cape and saved the day for the Blue Eagles with a 3-point play with less than seconds left.
Ateneo is now a win away from winning its ninth UAAP men’s basketball championship, but they’re expecting La Salle to come up with adjustments to get back on track with its “mayhem”-style of play and frenetic offense.
Should Ateneo win, it would cap off a historic Season 80 run, which saw them win 13 straight before falling to La Salle in the final game of the elimination round. Entering the season, the Blue Eagles were heavy favorites to snatch the crown from defending champions La Salle, but no one expected them to dominate games the way they did.
La Salle struggled early in the season, but eventually got into the groove by the second round. To extend the series to a deciding Game 3, the Archers will have to figure out ways to clear up space for their two-time MVP Mbala.
“Obviously if we lost the next game, it's over. We are not just going to go out there for a regular or mediocre game. We will go out and try to win the game. Without it, we're going to be out. Everything we've been doing the whole season will go to waste,” said Mbala, who was named to the UAAP Season 80 Mythical Five.
Joining him were his teammate Ricci Rivero, Ateneo’s Ravena, UE’s Alvin Pasaol, and NU’s J-Jay Alejandro.
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