By Jerome Lagunzad
While most of his La Salle teammates and Ateneo counterparts have already made their way out of the Mall of Asia Arena, reigning MVP Ben Mbala was the last Green Archer to emerge from their dugout, apparently taking some time to let emotions die down.
After all, the 6-foot-7 Cameroonian not only bore the brunt of the Blue Eagles’ collapsing defense but also the ire of the Ateneo faithful after figuring in a bloody collision with guard Matt Nieto in the opening half of Game 1 last Saturday night.
Mbala tried to spin his way to the left past Blue Eagle defender Kris Porter but caught the smaller Nieto with a vicious right elbow in the face, sending Nieto to the floor with a bloody gash above the right eye.
Game officials amazingly called Nieto for a blocking foul, putting Mbala on the free throw line with 36.6 seconds left in the second quarter and La Salle down 43-36. That frightening sequence sent Ateneo supporters up in arms, especially Nieto’s father, Jett, who was overheard lashing out at Mbala.
“It’s part of basketball. I didn’t intent to hit him or hurt him,” an apologetic Mbala told sports scribes following Ateneo’s 76-70 win that put defending champion La Salle on the ropes in their best-of-three finals series.
“I don’t know why his dad is cursing at me and threatening me. I wasn’t trying to listen to what he was saying but from where I saw him, he was threatening me and pointing at me telling me ‘I am dead.’
“That is not something you should be doing. He’s been to the sport for quite some time and we all know things like that happen all the time and I did not intend to hurt his son. That is not something you should be doing during a finals game especially if you are a father of two players on the court. You shouldn’t be doing that.”
Manila Bulletin sought out the Nieto patriarch for comment yesterday but couldn’t get in touch with him.
Ateneo team manager Epok Quimpo said the younger Nieto, despite that nasty cut, won’t require surgery.
With a bandage over his cut, Nieto returned to the floor and inspired his fellow Blue Eagles with his courage in the second half, with his twin brother Mike clustering 11 successive points.
“I was just anticipating his spin. Siguro he’s just too tall so sakto ‘yung elbow niya sa face ko,” said Nieto, who finished with 11 points, three assists and two rebounds.
“I’m gonna sacrifice even my face, even my body just to get that possession for us. So even though I’m down, even though they did call the foul on me, I just wanted you to know that I’m gonna sacrifice everything, even my face for that possession, because that possession will win us the game.”
The much-awaited rematch of last year’s finals got off to a testy start and Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin admitted that he was no longer surprised to see the Green Archers play the Blue Eagles physical all game long.