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La Salle eyes repeat vs FEU

By Jerome Lagunzad

Games Today
(Smart-Araneta Coliseum)
2 p.m. – UP vs UST
4 p.m. – FEU vs La Salle

Defending champion La Salle doesn’t look quite the same as fearsome as the Green Archers unit was last year and reigning league MVP Ben Mbala knows exactly the main reason why.

MBALA copy copy

“We’re not the defensive-minded team we used to be last year and that’s something that we need to change,” said the 6-foot-7 Cameroonian, urging his teammates to work doubly hard defensively when La Salle tries to get back on track against host Far Eastern University today as the second round of UAAP basketball tourney gets going at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

Tip off is at 4 p.m., with the Green Archers out to recover from a sorry 76-75 loss to archrival Ateneo Blue Eagles over the weekend and repeat a 95-90 victory over the Tamaraws in their first-round meeting.

If they prevail, they could seize solo second which they currently share with the Adamson Soaring Falcons.

The absence of top FEU big man Arvin Tolentino, who will serve a one-game suspension after being ejected in their humbling loss to Adamson last Saturday, plus the return of spitfire guard Aljun Melecio after a bout with dengue will give La Salle enough edge – at least manpower-wise.

However, their struggle to employ their “Mayhem” defense on a consistent basis appears to be the biggest challenge for the Green Archers, who are allowing their opponents to score 90.3 points per game – the second-worst in the league behind University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers’ 91.3.

“We still have a lot of time to work on our game, our team chemistry, especially on defense. And I’m sure coach (Aldin Ayo) and all of us players will be able to work on that,” stressed Mbala, who’s the leading candidate for a second straight MVP plum.

Clashing in the opener set at 2 p.m. are University of the Philippines and UST, two teams eager to put a stop to their losing skids.

The Fighting Maroons have dropped their last three matches since scoring a monumental 98-87 upset of the Green Archers more than two weeks ago while the Growling Tigers have slumped to their worst start in the Final Four era.

All eyes, however, will be on how the Green Archers will pick up the pieces and restore their collective confidence after relying mainly on Mbala to do most of the heavy lifting in the opening round.

“This team is not about Ben or anyone, it’s about us playing us a team,” said top La Salle wingman Ricci Rivero who made his presence felt, notably on the offensive end with a game-high 19 points against Ateneo.

“We have to practice playing with confidence kung sino man ‘yung lima na nasa loob. We don’t have to rely on Ben every time. Kailangan talaga maglaro kami as a team kasi ‘yung lineup naman namin parang capable of doing everything.”

If the Green Archers will only move the ball well, backups Jollo Go, Brent Paraiso and veteran Prince Rivero have proven they can also deliver and help ease the offensive load off the broad shoulders of Mbala, who’s been averaging a league-leading 30.4 points per game.