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Ayo sees dogfight with AdU Falcons

By Jerome Lagunzad

Game Saturday
(Smart-Araneta Coliseum)
4 p.m. – La Salle vs Adamson
(Final Four, Green Archers with 2x-to-beat edge)

Game Sunday
(Smart-Araneta Coliseum)
4 p.m. – Ateneo vs FEU
(Final Four, Blue Eagles with 2x-to-beat edge)

In hindsight, La Salle coach Aldin Ayo thinks the Green Archers could have an easier path to the UAAP basketball finals if they fell prey to archrival Ateneo last Sunday.

La Salle head coach Aldin Ayo during the UAAP Season 80 match against FEU at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay, September 10, 2017 (Rio Leonelle Deluvio)

La Salle head coach Aldin Ayo during the UAAP Season 80 match against FEU at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay, September 10, 2017 (Rio Leonelle Deluvio)

That could have allowed the Blue Eagles to earn an outright finals seat and set up a stepladder semifinal instead of the Final Four round.

If that what happened, defending champion La Salle, ranked second overall, will retain its twice-to-beat advantage against the winner of a knockout showdown between No. 3 Adamson and No. 4 host Far Eastern University which was initially penciled today.

“Actually, it will be easy for us if we lost,” said Ayo, confident that the Green Archers will have enough time to lick their wounds, pick up the pieces and get themselves all fired-up either against the Soaring Falcons and the Tamaraws this weekend.

However, Ayo knows that there’s a lot at stake, more than a victory, especially when La Salle rekindles its storied rivalry with Ateneo.

“Since it’s La Salle and Ateneo, we’re not going to back down, we’re not going to hold back. We’re just going to compete,” he said.

That’s exactly what the Green Archers did when they mounted a strong fightback from a 12-point deficit early in the final period and turned things around in the last 2:20 of play behind a telling 10-to-nothing windup that left the Blue Eagles stunned.

The come-from-behind victory enabled La Salle to complete its seven-game sweep of the second round and earn another proof that it is regaining its deadly form of old feared by many, including Ateneo.

“I think we’re in a very good spot because we’re peaking on the right time,” said Ayo. “And the players have been very, very responsible in terms of their commitment to our goal.”

Foremost among them is reigning back-to-back league MVP Ben Mbala, who dished out a monster performance of 28 points, 19 rebounds, six steals and as many blocks, practically doing a little bit of everything like what is expected from him.

Shifty guard Ricci Rivero, who made it to the Mythical Team for the first time, came up big down the stretch where he fired 12 of his 21 points while veteran guard Kib Montalbo bounced back from a forgettable showing the last time out by hitting the go-ahead floater with 40.3 seconds to play.

Their combined exploits, coupled with their collective poise under immense pressure put on by the erstwhile unflappable Blue Eagles, were clearly a sight to behold for Ayo after enduring a rough-and-tumble ride in the first round.

“There were lots of distractions in the first round. But we were able to overcome them, and we were able to focus when the second round them. It’s just being focused and being committed to the objective, which is to win the championship,” he said.

Ayo also did his part to fire up the Green Archers after he threw his black jacket in sheer frustration as they stared at a 69-76 deficit following a wild sequence that ended with Blue Eagles forward Vince Tolentino scoring a lay-up with 2:23 to play.