MANILA, Philippines—Ben Mbala knew the game was going to go down to the wire.
The former two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player had ridden an Angkas to the Araneta Coliseum from Taft, as he intended to watch his alma mater, De La Salle University, take on Far Eastern University in a playoff for the last spot in the Season 81 final 4.
He only caught the last four minutes of the second quarter, but that was enough to show him that they were in for a close finish.
"It's gonna be a tight game at the end of the game, and it will go down to execution," Mbala predicted in an interview at the half. "Respect whatever coach will tell them to do."
"I remember when I wasn't playing yet — was that Mac Belo, who hit the shot on (Jason) Perkins?" he said, referring to Belo's iconic three-pointer in the UAAP Season 77 final 4 against the Green Archers.
"It's gonna be that type of game, and I just hope the guys will be tough enough to, like, not crumble underneath the pressure. But I'm sure they can handle it, they'll be fine."
Mbala's prediction turned out to be correct. The contest was not decided until the final seconds, with FEU wiping out a four-point deficit with 63 seconds left to play. Arvin Tolentino nailed the go-ahead three-pointer with just 3.1 ticks left, and La Salle blew a chance to win the game when Santi Santillan missed out on a lay-up in their last possession.
"I mean, yeah, I knew it was gonna be a tight, close game at the end of regulation, and what I was expecting happened," Mbala said afterward.
"He (Tolentino) hit a clutch shot and we couldn't convert the last basket."
Mbala, who played two seasons for La Salle and led the Green Archers to the 2016 title, was obviously disappointed with the result, and felt for his former teammates, particularly those who were graduating.
"I'm kind of sad to see that some of the guys would go out without getting a ring, like Santillan," he said.
But Mbala is confident that good things are ahead for the graduating Green Archers, and this loss should only make their team stronger for next year.
"It's basketball, it's part of the game," he said. "You cannot only learn by winning, you gotta learn by losing as well, and that's what we gotta do there."
"I'm sure they have great stuff coming ahead of them," Mbala then said of his former teammates. "They don't even know it, but it's just a process. You start in college and you just have to keep working and hopefully have a great pro career."
As for "Big Ben," he is set to continue his own professional basketball career. He has already played in Mexico, France, and Korea, and very nearly suited up for the Magnolia Hotshots in the PBA as well. As it stands, he remains on "stand-by" for the Hotshots.
"You know, when you're a free agent, you have a lot of teams trying to talk to you, so staying on standby is a little bit complicated for me. But we'll see," said Mbala.
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