By Jerome Lagunzad
Thirdy Ravena shone the brightest last night as Ateneo outlasted defending champion La Salle, 76-70, to keep the UAAP Season 80 basketball title within its reach before a sellout Mall of Asia Arena crowd.
The 6-foot-3 Ravena turned a bungled three-point try by teammate Anton Asistio into a huge putback then set up big man Isaac Go for the game-clinching three-point play with 10.4 seconds left to help the Blue Eagles avert a stunning collapse in the face of the Green Archers’ fightback.
The thrilling victory, witnessed by 15,114 fans mostly clad in blue and green shirts, put Ateneo on the threshold of claiming its first title since 2012 and ninth overall since entering the country’s most prestigious collegiate league in 1978.
The Blue Eagles have two cracks in achieving that feat starting on Game 2 set on Wednesday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
Ravena, the younger brother of former two-time league MVP Kiefer, had an all-around performance of 12 points, six rebounds and four assists while five other teammates scored at least seven points in a well-balanced Ateneo attack.
Diminutive guard Aljun Melecio sizzled with a game-high 24 points, spiked by five triples, but set-to-be-named back-to-back league MVP Ben Mbala was far from his usual dominant self, leaving a big void that proved to be hard for the Green Archers to fill in.
The 6-foot-7 Cameroonian could only score eight points — his lowest offensive output in the league — in seven limited attempts and even turned the ball over three times in a foul-plagued showing as the Eagles’ swarming defense made life tough for him all game long.
“We couldn’t play Ben Mbala straight up one on one. We needed all of our five guys to come up and do the roles in order to slow down Ben. That was important for us,” said long-time Ateneo assistant Sandy Arespacochaga, satisfied no end with the Blue Eagles’ sustained defense that neutralized the Archers’ main weapon.
Showing no signs of fatigue following a hard-earned 88-84 overtime victory over host Far Eastern University last Wednesday, Ateneo jumped the gun on a well-rested La Salle side and built a lead as high as 13 — at 27-14 off Ravena’s split — early in the second canto.
ATENEO 76 – Ravena 12, Nieto Ma 11, Nieto Mi 11, Asistio 10, Tolentino 9, Black 7, Verano 5, Go 5, Ikeh 4, Tio 2, Mamuyac 0, Mendoza 0, Porter 0.
DLSU 70 – Melecio 24, Rivero R 10, Mbala 8, Tratter 7, Santillan 7, Rivero P 7, Baltazar 4, Montalbo 3, Caracut 0, Go 0, Tero 0, Paraiso 0.
Quarters: 26-14, 43-39, 60-58, 76-70.