MANILA, Philippines – De La Salle University was the obvious favorite to win the title in the UAAP men’s basketball this year.
The Green Archers were coming off a sweep in the finals last season over archrivals Ateneo de Manila University and they still had the strongest lineup in league, at least on paper, despite losing Jeron Teng.
With reigning Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala expected to run over the league again and behind a program led by a coach who has won two collegiate titles with two different teams in just his first year at the helm, La Salle was at the forefront of the UAAP race. A championship in the BLIA Cup in Taiwan last August where they faced teams from China, France and the United States was proof.
Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler
But things went downhill since then. A few weeks after winning the title in Taiwan, the Green Archers were at the headlines for the wrong reasons following a bench-clearing brawl against the Far Eastern University Tamaraws in a pre-season game in Davao.
A few weeks passed again and they lost to the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, 87-98, midway the first round. To be fair, the Fighting Maroons were highly competitive heading into Season 80 but no one anticipated them to defeat the Green Archers, much more win by double digits.
Now, people had speculations if La Salle was imploding. Then the speculations grew louder after reports surfaced that there was a rift between players and bosses from La Salle were unsatisfied with how head coach Aldin Ayo handled his wards.
“We were not able to handle very well our championship last season. I don’t want to expound on that. Medyo maselan eh. We were not able to handle really well our championship. Worried ako how we started our season. Siyempre, being the head coach, I’m accountable for everything that happened,” said Ayo.
(We were not able to handle very well our championship last season. I don’t want to expound on that. It is kind of delicate. We were not able to handle our championship really well. I was worried with how we started our season. Of course, being the head coach, I’m accountable for everything that happened.)
Photo po by Josh Albelda/Rappler
Fast forward to the finals this season and the team that finished the elimination round last year with a 13-1 card before sweeping the championship series was now at the receiving end of an 86-88 loss in a do-or-die Game 3 against Ateneo.
It was a complete reversal of fortune for both squads. This time, it was Ateneo which finished the elimination round with a 13-1 record and won the coveted title to end a five-year championship drought.
For Mbala, who ran away with his second MVP plum this season, it was simply Ateneo playing better basketball.
“I’d say they played better as a team. They stick (sic) with their gameplan and get the shot when it is the most important.”
“We didn’t get to our game. We didn’t get to our plays. We were not in rhythm, we just went with the flow and took a lot of bad shots and turned the ball over when it was the most important,” Mbala added.
Soon as the game ended, most of the Green Archers were reduced into tears. Aljun Melecio was being hugged by Ayo, the Rivero brothers of Ricci and Prince were both being consoled by team staff while Mbala sat at the bench, staring blankly and crying.
“Of course, we’re going to compete. We’re going to play and squeeze everything sa abot ng makakaya namin. I want to compete, gusto namin manalo. There were problems na we were not able to resolve pagdating dito sa championship, lumabas,” said Ayo.
(Of course, we’re going to compete. We’re going to play and squeeze everything. I want to compete, I want to win. There were problems that we were not able to resolve previously which came up in this championship series.)
The Green Archers will still have its core intact for another title run next season as they have no graduating players. Mbala will return for his final year in the UAAP and as early as now is the leading MVP candidate.
“It has to be a learning experience for me. You cannot learn by only winning, you also have to learn by losing. I think, this situation, I have to learn by losing. I’d take it as a man,” Mbala said. – Rappler.com
Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.