By Jerome Lagunzad
Defending champion La Salle turned the tables on archrival Ateneo last night and perhaps tilted the balance as title favorites back in its favor.
Reigning MVP Ben Mbala dished out a monster performance while veterans Ricci Rivero and Kib Montalbo rose to the occasion as the Green Archers pulled off a come-from-behind 79-76 victory at the packed Smart Araneta Coliseum, denying the Blue Eagles a 14-game elimination round sweep and an outright finals berth.
The 6-foot-7 Mbala, playing with reckless abandon throughout, tallied game-highs of 28 points, 19 rebounds, six steals and as many blocks, practically doing a little bit of everything to help La Salle avenge a painful 76-75 loss to Ateneo in the first round.
Not to be outdone were the veteran duo of Montalbo and Rivero, with the former sinking a go-ahead floater with 40.3 seconds to play and the latter following up a pair of made freebies with the game-clinching block on Blue Eagles guard Anton Asistio’s potential tying triple just as time expired, sending the Green Archers faithful into a frenzy.
The thrilling victory, witnessed by 13, 967 fans in attendance mostly clad in green and blue shirts, enabled La Salle to give Ateneo a perfect dose of its own medicine after the Blue Eagles derailed the Green Archers’ own drive for an elims sweep last year.
In addition, La Salle won all seven games of the second round and primed itself up for a titanic collision with third-ranked Adamson in the Final Four round on Saturday armed with a twice-to-beat advantage.
The Blue Eagles remained as the top-ranked squad in the semis where it will enjoy a twice-to-beat advantage against the fourth-ranked Far Eastern University Tamaraws on Sunday.
La Salle coach Aldin Ayo heaved a big sigh of relief after his team erased a seven-point deficit in the final two minutes.
“I have to commend the players for their effort, for sticking to the game plan especially during the end game,” said Ayo.
Earlier, University of Santo Tomas saved its best for last by carving out an 88-85 victory over University of the East to prevent itself from a winless campaign.
UST 88 – Basibas 21, Akomo 18, Caunan 14, Lee 11, Garcia 10, De Guzman 6, Sta. Ana 4, Escalambre 2, Macasaet 2, Romero 0, Huang 0, Faundo 0.
UE 85 – Pasaol 18, Varilla 16, Maloles 15, Conner 10, Acuño 8, Cullar 7, Manalang 7, Bartolome 2, Olayon 2, Derige 0.
Quarters: 23-15; 43-39; 63-61; 88-85.
LA SALLE 79 – Mbala 28, Rivero R 21, Tratter 8, Santillan 7, Melecio 6, Montalbo 6, Go 3, Caracut 0, Rivero P 0, Baltazar 0, Paraiso 0.
ATENEO 76 – Ravena 15, Go 13, Nieto Ma 12, Verano 9, Mendoza 7, Asistio 6, Tolentino 6, Ikeh 4, Porter 3, Nieto Mi 1, Mamuyac 0, Black 0.
Quarters: 17-22; 37-35; 54-63; 79-76.