By Jerome Lagunzad
Determined to pump up his nervy teammates in an anemic first half, La Salle big man Ben Mbala caught a well-timed alley-oop pass from Green Archers skipper Kib Montalbo then threw it down with force.
On the defensive end, the 6-foot-7 Cameroonian soared high for an emphatic rejection of Ateneo wingman Gian Mamuyac’s layup, sending the ball out in the baseline before giving the Blue Eagles bench a nasty staredown.
The newly-minted back-to-back Most Valuable Player was back at his dominant best and so was defending champion La Salle on Wednesday night as they pulled off a come-from-behind 92-83 victory over Ateneo in Game 2 to force sudden-death battle for the UAAP Season 80 basketball crown.
Raring to redeem himself following a woeful eight-point performance in their 76-70 loss in the series opener over the weekend, Mbala, 22, tried to do a little bit of everything early on, only to pick up a pair of fouls in the first canto.
But once he settled down late in the second period, Mbala displayed his usual destructive force as he ignited the Green Archers’ fightback courtesy of a 14-2 run that trimmed a repeated 21-point deficits down to just 42-51 at the half.
Then Mbala served as the primary anchor in their renewed defensive intensity in their third quarter assault, swatting a pair of shots, including that Mamuyac attempt, and coming up with three steals as his local teammates took care of the offensive goods. In the end, Mbala did big damage on both ends with a game-high-tying of 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field while collecting 16 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists against five errors in 33 minutes of play.
“I always have to remind myself that at the end of the day, it’s just a game and we have to enjoy,” he said. “I feel like the past game, I wasn’t enjoying the game, I was too tense, you know I wanted to overdo everything.
“I had to like, sit down, inhale and exhale, and relax. That’s what I tried doing, and maybe after that (alley-oop) dunk, I felt like everything went smoothly. And everything started going well for us.”
Even Ateneo guard Matt Nieto, who found himself get knocked down by Mbala several times in the lane, felt La Salle’s prized center turned out to be the biggest difference – as expected.
“For me the dunk of Ben in the baseline got them pumped up,” he said, referring to Mbala’s rim-rattling jam that perhaps brought the Green Archers back to life and sent chills down the Blue Eagles’ collective spine.
“Kami talaga ‘yung may problema. Kami ‘yung nagpabaya sa sarili namin. Nawala ‘yung composure namin, nawala ‘yung pag-stick namin sa game plan, binale-wala lang namin kasi akala namin kaya namin ‘pag hindi namin sinundan ‘yung system.”
As the Blue Eagles started to crumble like a house of cards in the third period, the Green Archers sustained their assault with top local Ricci Rivero and veteran gunner Andrei Caracut hitting their stride and Mbala towering above everyone down low.
“We kept playing D (defense), we kept pushing,” said the African big man. “As a team, we’ve been through almost the same situations. I feel like we got used to games like this. We just stick together, we stick to the game plan, and we did what coach asked us to do – play D, play D, and from there, we started everything.”