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La Salle completes comeback for fourth straight title

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After sweeping the elimination round once more, the defending UAAP women’s table tennis champions De La Salle University looked formidable.

That changed in the Finals, as the University of Santo Tomas took the first team tie.

Nonetheless, with championship experience and a huge source of inspiration, the Lady Paddlers turned back a deficit and downed the University of Santo Tomas Lady Paddlers, 2-1, in the Finals, to clinch their fourth consecutive title, Monday evening at the University of the Philippines Gym in Diliman.

Taking their momentum from Saturday’s semifinals win against FEU, the España-based squad stunned La Salle in the morning’s first duel.

The two squads split the first four matches, before UST’s Kate Encarnacion pulled the rug from national team player Jamaica Sy in a marathon five-setter at 11-13, 12-10, 3-11, 11-7, 13-11.

The senior La Sallian Sy felt she had let her guard down, but quickly accepted the loss.

“Siguro hindi para sa ‘min yung first. Tinanggap namin yun whole-heartedly and we regrouped,” she reflected.

The result was a more convincing 3-1 victory in the second tie for the reigning queens.

Last year’s Most Valuable Player Emy Rose Dael and Rookie of the Year Chantal Alberto provided the 2-0 lead for the Green and White. Team captain Ina Co then forced the do-or-did tie after downing Encarnacion at 8-11, 11-9, 12-10, 11-7.

With little time to recover, La Salle and UST took to the table one last time for all the marbles.

Alberto and Dael once more took the first two singles matches for La Salle. The sophomore blasted Millana at 11-9, 11-9, 11-1, before the junior dumped Encarnacion with 11-8, 11-3, 11-9.

Rachel Parba and Kat Tempiatura rescued the Tomasina’s title hopes and took down Kimberly Lumenda and Mardeline Carreon in the lone doubles match. They took one for UST at 11-3, 10-12, 11-9, 11-5.

Quite fittingly, however, it was the graduating Sy who took the table for La Salle in the third singles match. The fifth-year stalwart knew it would not be easy to get past an unfamiliar opponent in Kathleen Tempiatura.

“Siya yung isa sa pinag-prepare-an ko kasi sa buong UAAP ko, hindi ko siya nakalaban. We all know that ‘pag UAAP iba yung situation, iba yung confidence ng bawat players, iba yung preparation,” the skipper added.

Nonetheless, taking inspiration from Olympian and La Salle Great Yan Lariba, Sy poured in all her heart and pulled through in that singles match. Kathleen Tempiatura showed some measure of resistance, but Sy was relentless and bagged the match at 11-7, 11-8, 11-4.

Sy and the Lady Archers formally sealed a dynasty with their fifth crown in six years.

The 2017 Southeast Asian Games participant shared that it was through learning that they were able to accomplish the feat.

“Sobrang laking help nung natalo kami nung first year kami kahit sweep kami,” she said, referring to a loss to UP four years ago. “Sa loob-loob namin, ayaw na naming mangyari yung ganung situation. Ayaw kong maranasan ng teammates ko yung umiyak after whole year of training.”

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Aldin Ayo brushes off Tab Baldwin’s admiration of his system

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It took two years for the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles head coach Tab Baldwin to devise schemes and strategies to get past the De La Salle University Green Archers. And after nine tries, the well-traveled tactician was finally able to close out this chapter by outlasting the defending champions in three grueling yet epic games on Sunday evening.

“They never take the pressure off. You know, they’re confident in their system—and that comes from Aldin [Ayo],” shared Baldwin, who has 35 years of experience under his belt. “They believe in their players, they believe in their system and they’re just not gonna take their foot off your throat for one minute.

“I admire that so much.”

After getting a chance to see and experience the holistic system that Ayo has developed last season, the former Gilas Pilipinas head coach shared that their physical training just to keep up with La Salle started as early as January. But even with this preparation, the Blue Eagles needed to dig deep in each of their five meetings this season.

“We had to rise to their level. They set the bar. So I have to congratulate them for that.

“Losing is always tough and I’m happy it’s them not us but there’s no lack of respect and admiration for who they are and what they did to get here, what they did today,” beamed Baldwin.

“They fought back again. We had them down and again they fought back. You know, we had them down ten and then they cut it to I don’t know, three or something, two?,” he pointed out.

“They’re champions, they’re still champions. You can’t take that away from them. But now, so are we.”

Fresh off his first series loss in two years, Ayo shrugged off the kind words that the American-Kiwi mentor said about him and his system, saying it is all part of the build-up for next season.

“He’s playing mind games.

“Ganoon naman palagi eh. Ako naiintindihan ko naman because he’s just competing. He’s going to say nice things and those things are preparation for next year,” the highly-competitive coach said.

“Everything that we say here to all of you, lahat yan may purpose, and that purpose is to compete,” Ayo added. “Kung titignan mo yung motive, he’s just competing. On our part, walang problema. We just want to compete.”

This, however, stems from how other coaches perceive him, according to the youthful mentor. Aware of what his peers have been saying about him, Ayo feels like he is still undermined despite the accomplishments he has achieved.

“There are other coaches, they are trying to ridicule you, bully you,” disclosed Ayo.

“I have one message to them, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive’ because it’s part of the competition naman. Since tapos na rin naman yung season, there’s a difference, basketball lang naman ito.”

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Ricci Rivero finds solace in family, faith after tough Finals loss

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In his second season, Ricci Rivero made a huge leap during the De La Salle University Green Archers’ title defense campaign. The 19-year-old embraced the role of one of the team’s scorers, helping ease the loss of Jeron Teng.

Even with the graduation of Teng and three other Green Archers — namely bruiser Jason Perkins, stopper Julian Sargent, and floor general Thomas Torres — the Green Archers were pegged to repeat their title win, as they still had world-talent Ben Mbala, leader Kib Montalbo, and young guns Ricci Rivero and Aljun Melecio unraveling their potential.

And it was Rivero shone the most, especially in the Finals, averaging 14.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.33 assists in the classic three-game series. Moreover, his emotional turnaround was also pivotal to winning Game Two and forcing a rubber match.

This time around, the Green Archers were not the last team standing, as the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles found a way to subdue them, 88-86.

Though he was saddened by the outcome, Rivero has no regrets, saying that they had already accepted the outcome moments after the game.

“At this point, we gave everything naman. Siguro [Ateneo] are more deserving than us lang. Siguro mas will na rin ni God na nanalo sila,” said the All-UAAP team member. “Hindi kami kaya nag pray na sana manalo kami.

“Nag-pray kami na whatever happens, sana yung will ni Papa Jesus yung mangyari and help niya lang kami sa mga situations na mahihirapan kami.”

Immediately after the awarding ceremony, he gathered with his older brother Prince and their parents near the cross in the dugout to console each other. The La Salle lifer is fortunate to have his family backing him up as he move on from this defeat.

Now that the Season 80’s Most Improved Player has experienced both winning and losing on the big stage, he wants to reflect from this experience and be back more mature as ever.

“Sobrang hirap lang ng feeling kasi yun, may ups and down talaga pero ngayon nasa down kami,” said Rivero as he tried to buck tears. “Laking factor siguro ng pagkatalong ito kasi pag natalo mas dun lahat dadating yung mas sincere na prayers mo. Parang mag lolook back ka, bakit nangyari ‘to and all.

“Titignan namin yung mga pagkakamali namin throughout the process tapos pipilitin namin maitama.”

And as he left the venue, Rivero granted a few supporters’ requests for a photo op before returning to the arms of his parents.

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Aljun Melecio, Andrei Caracut speak on behalf of devastated Kib Montalbo

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A loss in the finals will always be a bitter pill to swallow. All those hours put into practice and the process to get there could end up for naught with a loss.

This year, it was the De La Salle University Green Archers’ turn to taste defeat at the hands of their arch-rivals Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles in a grueling three-game series.

Isaac Go’s dagger three in the last 50 seconds of the contest sealed the deal for the Blue Eagles, as they had an 85-80 cushion against the Green Archers. La Salle tried to make a comeback, but it was just not the Green Archers’ day. Ateneo eventually prevailed 88-86 to clinch their first championship in five years.

“Breaks of the game siguro,” lamented La Salle point guard Aljun Melecio, who averaged 17.33 points and 1.3 steals in the epic three-game series.

“Congratulations to Ateneo.”

Melecio’s fellow guard Andrei Caracut echoed his sentiments.

“Breaks of the game. Ganun talaga yung buhay sa basketball pero marami kaming natutunan ngayong game na ito. Sana madala namin next season.”

With the game tied 66-66 at the end of the third period, La Salle sought to seize an early advantage and forced three after three to no avail early in the fourth quarter. By contrast, Ateneo sunk three of their seven three-point attempts that doomed La Salle.

“Hindi lang pumapasok shots namin,” rued Melecio, a sophomore.

Come the final buzzer, it was the Blue and White who emerged victorious after 40 minutes of basketball. As the confetti rained down on center court, the Green Archers were either weeping or standing in disbelief. One of those most devastated was skipper Kib Montalbo.

“Speechless. Wala ako masabi talaga,” shared a downcast Montalbo, who posted norms of 5.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in the series.

Overall, Ateneo simply outscored and outlasted La Salle, and a big reason for that was the Blue Eagles’ overall efficiency from the downtown. The newly crowned champions went 10-for-25 from downtown compared to La Salle’s 8-of-33.

Still, Caracut — speaking on behalf of his two closest teammates — expressed that they had given it their all even if the result did not go in their favor.

“Binigay naman namin yung best namin,” said the third-year guard, who put up 8.67 points per game in the season finale.

La Salle will have a mostly intact lineup next year, as it is only Abu Tratter who has played out his eligibility. Cameroonian star Ben Mbala is still eligible for one more year based on the current eligibility rules. Redemption mode is officially on for the Green Archers.

“For sure siyempre kailangan talaga double yung effort and hardwork. Mag-prepare kami (for) next year,” vowed Caracut. “Bounce back kami.”

Meanwhile, Montalbo declared, “I don’t know what to think right now man but we’ll bounce back. Yun lang.”

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Ben Mbala reflects on Finals heartbreak: ‘You can also learn by losing’

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As the buzzer sounded and confetti rained at center court of the SMART-Araneta Coliseum, one half of the venue was stunned. Some were in tears, while some stood in silence.

The De La Salle University Green Archers, the team that were pegged to repeat as champions this season, had just been handed a heartbreaking 88-86 loss in the title-decider.

Standing out from the sea of green was two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala. At 6-foot-7, the Cameroonian student-athlete openly wept on the floor.

“This has to be a learning experience for me. You can’t just learn by winning, you can also learn by losing.

“This is a situation that you have to learn by losing and I take it as a man,” the 22-year-old shared.

Having come off a stint with the Cameroonian national team in the 2017 FIBA Afrobasket last August, Mbala added new weapons to his arsenal. He was faster, more dangerous, and more experienced compared to his first year in La Salle. However, the league — and specifically, the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles — has also improved.

During the Finals, Mbala averaged 15.67 points on 52.78 percent shooting to go along with 14.0 rebounds, 1.67 steals, and 2.67 blocks. But during Game Three, the Green Archers faltered at the most crucial of times, allowing the Blue Eagles to bomb threes all over them while settling for tough shots. This gave Ateneo a 78-70 cushion with 4:30 left in the season.

“Ateneo played better as a team. They stuck to their game plan.

“We didn’t get to play our game, we didn’t have our rhythm,” admitted Mbala. “We just played within the flow and we took a lot of bad shots, turned the ball over when it was the most important.”

Mbala has vowed to come back stronger next season once he clears things up with the Green Archers’ brass. But as of now, he just plans to move on from this painful defeat.

“It’s a game after all, just not because it’s Ateneo or La Salle you have to hate each other,” Mbala said.

“After the game, we still have our lives and we have to keep going on with our lives.”

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