No Ben Mbala, no problem.
The defending champions De La Salle Green Archers survived the FEU Tamaraws’ late-game rally to begin their title defense with a win, 95-90, on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“We just played our game. Yung depensa, yung offense also. It was a total team effort especially on defense. I told the boys to prioritize defense,” said La Salle coach Aldin Ayo.
Aljun Melecio exploded for 29 points, to go with six rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
Kib Montalbo, who just came from the hospital and was not expected to play, scored all of his 12 points in the second half. He was instrumental in stopping the Tamaraws’ furious rally down the stretch.
“Breakdown on defense and decision making on offense also,” Ayo said on how FEU managed to inch closer in the endgame. “I told the guys that we are still a young team. Pagdating sa crunch time, there were questionable decision-making.”
Wendell Comboy and Ron Dennison rallied FEU from 21 points down as their crucial triples pushed them within five points, 90-85, with under two minutes remaining in the game. Unfortunately for the Tamaraws, time was no longer on their side.
Despite La Salle committing a dribbling error, FEU came up empty in their next possession. The Tams had another chance when the Archers were whistled for a shot clock violation, but Montalbo made a clutch steal that led to Melecio icing the game with a couple of freebies.
Jasper Parker hit a three to cut the Tamaraws’ deficit down to four, but six seconds were not enough for them to mount a comeback.
The Green Archers escaped with the victory despite missing the services of reigning MVP Ben Mbala, who is currently representing Cameroon in the 2017 FIBA AfroBasket.
“Maganda yung laro ni Abu (Tratter). Napunuan yung spot ni Ben. Maganda din nilaro ng bigs. Actually the four big guys contributed. Prince (Rivero), Santi (Santillan), even Justine (Baltazar) gave us quality minutes off the bench,” Ayo proudly said about his big men.
The Green Archers created a 23-point gap in the first half, thanks to the hot shooting of Melecio who produced 20 of his career-high 29 points before halftime.
It was Montalbo’s turn to wax hot after the break. Dennison led the charge for the Tamaraws in the third frame to bring them within seven points. Montalbo, however, stopped FEU in their tracks as he unleashed three triples that put La Salle on top by 19 heading into the deciding quarter.
Dennison paced the Tamaraws with 21 points, seven rebounds, and four assists in the loss.
FEU will clash with UE on Wednesday, September 13, while La Salle will take on the NU Bulldogs on Saturday, September 16.
DLSU 95 – Melecio 29, Caracut 16, Montalbo 12, Tratter 11, Santillan 9, Rivero P 7, Baltazar 4, Go 3, Rivero R 2, Paraiso 2, Capacio 0.
FEU 90 – Dennison 21, Comboy 13, Orizu 12, Tuffin 10, Cani 7, Tolentino 7, Parker 7, Inigo 5, Escoto 5, Trinidad 3, Nunag 0, Ebona 0, Bienes 0.
QUARTER SCORES: 29-11, 47-32, 73-54, 95-90.