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Mbala’s back for Archers

La Salle’s Ben Mbala returns to action against Adamson in the UAAP senior men’s basketball tournament at the MOA Arena this afternoon with a wealth of experience from the FIBA AfroBasket Cup to boost his stock.

But it remains to be seen if Mbala will play a major role in coach Aldin Ayo’s rotation at least for today’s contest. He arrived from a tiring trip that took almost a day last Sunday and might still be jet-lagged. Mbala didn’t get to practice with La Salle for nearly a month before the UAAP season started and he’ll need to readjust from playing three or four for the Cameroon national team to playing four or five with the Archers.

Last Saturday, Ayo deployed only nine players in beating NU, 115-109, and could’ve used Mbala to lengthen his rotation. NU outrebounded La Salle, 51-49, had more second chance points, 27-20 and scored more points in the paint, 62-40. La Salle felt Mbala’s absence in those departments. Despite the handicap, Ayo found ways to upend the Bulldogs. Six Archers scored in double figures and two more hit at least eight in a balanced attack that brought down NU. La Salle knocked down 15 triples to NU’s six and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 22:18 compared to the Bulldogs’ 18:20.

The entire Archers squad was at the airport to welcome Mbala when he landed. He took an Emirates flight that took off in Tunisia then had a layover of five hours in Dubai before heading for Manila. From the airport, the team went to the Toast Restaurant at the Ayala Malls the 30th on Meralco Avenue for dinner.

Mbala said he learned a ton of lessons in his debut with the Cameroon squad. His stint in the FIBA AfroBasket Cup means he’ll never be able to play for the Philippines as a naturalized import. Cameroon coach Antonio Barbosa of Brazil was a fountain of knowledge. Barbosa, 72, coached the Brazilian women’s team at the Rio Olympics. Cameroon tapped Barbosa after regular coach Lazare Adingono wasn’t released by his Angola club employer.

“Coach told me not to hesitate to take a shot if I’m open and gave me a lot of confidence,” said Mbala. “Against Nigeria, I went to the post against (Ike) Diogu because he’s not a strong post defender. In the other games, we did pick-and-pops and I attacked face-up. In FIBA, they’re strict with contact and don’t allow arm bars. It’ll be easier to adjust back to the UAAP rules.”

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Mbala’s matchup against Diogu, a six-year NBA veteran who’s 33, was the highlight of Cameroon’s duel with Nigeria in the knockout quarterfinals. Mbala hit 32 points and Diogu, 28, as Nigeria won, 106-91. Nigeria was up, 75-70, to start the fourth period then Mbala got his fourth personal and had to sit out. While Mbala was on the bench, Nigeria detonated a 10-0 bomb that settled the issue. Mbala wound up the tournament’s second leading scorer (21.8) and rebounder (9.3) while Diogu was voted MVP.

Mbala said Cameroon could’ve gone all the way to the final if only naturalized import D. J. Strawberry, 6-11 Kenny Kadji and the country’s three NBA players Joel Embiid, Luc Mbah a Moute and Pascal Siakam played. Strawberry, a former Phoenix Sun, trained with Cameroon in the first week of camp in Sao Paolo then was recalled to Turkey by his team. Kadji joined the national squad in camp in Cameroon then was also recalled by his club in Turkey. The three NBA players opted to stay in the US to protect their roster spots.

Mbala said he got along with his Cameroon teammates, especially roommate Arnaud Moto. He made special mention of point guard Njoya Seidou who had an impressive showing. With Strawberry and four other key players missing, Cameroon lacked the depth to compete with Tunisia and Nigeria. Cameroon lost only to those two countries that ended up battling in the final.

The AfroBasket Cup brought in several NBA veterans aside from Diogu. Senegal paraded Maurice Ndour, Gorgui Dieng and former PBA import Hamady N’diaye while Nigeria had Damiel Ochefu. But there were no NBA or collegiate scouts in the audience. Mbala said he was approached by scouts representing European and Middle East teams. 

“My Cameroon teammates were surprised that we play basketball at a high level in the Philippines,” said Mbala. “They went to the internet to check out games in the UAAP and PBA. Now, they know how we play and they’re impressed. I’m grateful to La Salle and Boss Danding (Cojuangco) for allowing me to play for my national team. It’s always been my dream to play for my country. Now, I’m back to play for La Salle. I know it will be a challenge to win back-to-back UAAP championships but we’ll give our best to make it happen.”

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