The final buzzer sounds, signaling the end of the game. Winners would call this an important victory, something to build on as they make a Final Four push. Teams who lost try to look at the positive, going at it by game and learning from one’s mistakes. Then there are seniors, whether winner or loser, took a step closer towards the end of their college basketball career. It’s their One Last Ride of a crazy journey in a league that has a lot of madness.

Welcome to One Last Ride, where the HumbleBola team profiles outgoing seniors in the UAAP and the NCAA. For this installment, we feature the Man of Steal. He stole basketballs, but he also stole our hearts with his hard work, leadership, and grit. 

Former The LaSallian Sports Editor Claro Manzano talks about the Green Archers captain.

It’s the year 2013, and the Green Archers sensationally ended what was dubbed as “The Dark Ages” after defeating the UST Growling Tigers for the UAAP Men’s Basketball Championship. La Salle had won its first title since 2007 after a dramatic three-game series. What more, the Lasallians emerged as number one in what was the end of the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ five-peat run.

Back then was a Jeron Teng who mainly barged his way in for a basket. Not exactly the recent Jeron we got accustomed to, the one who now torches opponents from midrange. There were also the last few recruits from the Franz Pumaren Era. To name a few: Oda Tampus, Almond Vosotros, and big man Norbert Torres, who missed his graduation because of Game 3 of the Finals.

People may forget that this bunch of Green Archers had a freshman out of Bacolod sitting at the end of the bench. Their rookie point guard, Kib Montalbo, the last member of the 2013 La Salle squad to graduate.

Photo Credit: Ryan Ong, GoArchers

Kib had been La Salle’s team captain for two seasons running. After learning the ropes behind LA Revilla and Thomas Torres, the spotlight eventually shifted to the Man of Steal to take the lead.

“As a rookie, just play… I didn’t even look at the score before honestly. I’d just play.” said Montalbo. Even as a senior, the mentality hasn’t changed for the Bacolod native. “Now a senior, you gotta play, you gotta play in every possession.”

Looking back at his rookie year, he was thrown into the fire as he made his UAAP debut in an 82-73 win over archrival Ateneo. To make things even more special, that win had also snapped the Green Archers’ three-year losing skid to the Blue Eagles. Montalbo played limited minutes to relieve Thomas Torres, who held the fort in the absence of an injured Revilla. In a matchup that featured a championship atmosphere one generation after another, Montalbo did not crack.

Check the box score and you won’t see much next to Kib’s name: two fouls in six minutes of action, but that didn’t paint the whole picture. The St. Johns High School alumnus did not disappoint as he calmly dictated the game’s tempo, a big must for a point guard. Montalbo ran transitions and La Salle’s offense smoothly one play after another. No spills for the rookie and he held his ground firmly. Lasallians at the Mall of Asia Arena then saw how the future of their team would be in good hands.

Montalbo stepped up in his sophomore season, Season 77, as he assumed the starting point guard role with Thomas Torres missing majority of the season due to injury. That was the season of the Mac Belo game. The Mac. Belo. Game. The FEU Tamaraw had taken a cold-blooded corner three off a Mike Tolomia drive and kick to end La Salle’s title defense. One of the takeaways that year? Kib was key in providing chemistry and motion to a team that was still packed with individually gifted scorers. Teng and Thomas Torres had nothing but praise for Montalbo when they were asked about his performance that year.

Photo Credit: Roy Afable, SLAM Philippines

“During that time nabigyan siya talaga ng chance to really prove himself and to have that opportunity, to have that exposure, and he did deliver that time, Teng explains.

Although, things took a difficult turn for Montalbo the next season.

2015 proved to be a setback since he was left off the lineup after tearing his ACL in the preseason. Kib was spotted on the bench assisting the coaching staff and guiding his peers. Montalbo was relegated to the sidelines but still grasped the opportunity by the horns to continue his growth.

“I just told myself to study [the game], kung anong makakatulong sa akin. I was hard on myself during therapy na I need to get better,” he recalls.

He returned to the UAAP the next year, regained his swagger, and picked up another championship over arch rival Ateneo. Montalbo clicked in La Salle’s two years under then Head Coach Aldin Ayo and his Mayhem System which involved tenacious full-court pressure all throughout. This stint led to him famously earning the “Man of Steal” moniker as he concluded the 2016 season ranked first in steals averaging three per game. He tallied a total of 42 steals throughout the elimination round as Jon Sheriff finished at a distant second with 24.

When asked about his moniker, Montalbo expressed his gratitude and said, “It’s an honor to be given that moniker, I don’t know who gave that to me. Pero I’m grateful for that. I don’t think about it. I just play my game, one game at a time.”

Masigla talaga si Kib. Matulin at sobrang bilis niya so aanticipate niya talaga yung gagawin ng kalaban. Lalo na yung mga loose balls. Talagang pagpikit mo andun na siya,” Thomas Torres recalled regarding Kib’s defense.

The prior seasons under Ayo’s predecessor, Juno Sauler, demonstrated Montalbo’s smarts in orchestrating half court sets. Under Ayo, another being was unleashed in Kib as he strutted his ability in the open court. How could one forget Kib’s wrap around layup in Game 1 of the finals in 2017? And it resulted to an and-1 play which just threw Lasallians at the MOA Arena in threw a frenzy with strangers high-fiving each other.

The 2013 Green Archers had Revilla hitting Van Opstal down low normally on a triangle offense set or swinging the ball to the likes of Vosotros for a three. Revilla was an outright stabilizer for the team. Having him reorganize the La Salle attack and slowing things down to break opponents’ momentum was almost like calling a timeout. Point guards control the game, but not all can do the job with such a tremendous impact.

We had even gone beyond seeing LA set up teammates in the clutch, and witnessed him sink big baskets and make stops. Although LA was a pass-first player, he knew when to take matters into his own hands.

The Green Archers still had a player with that jedi-like ability to read and dictate the game in Montalbo. When asked on how playing behind Revilla had molded him, Kib without hesitation gave credit beyond his senior point guard. He went on to name his senior teammates then and almost came close to acknowledging the entire roster.

“Everybody in that 2013 squad kept pushing me. Kasi lagi akong pinapagalitan because I didn’t know the style of play yet kasi galing ako sa province,” he stated without hesitation. “Good thing they keep on teaching me, hindi sila nagigiveup sa akin. Sometimes nadadown ako, they still push me up.”.

He’s the team’s glue guy. We saw him do what LA used to do. It’s no surprise given the way he has matured through all the ups and downs, through injuries and fearlessly stepping up.

Carrying that winning mentality forward from his rookie year didn’t seem like a problem for Kib.

Competitiveness is something that he immediately brings to the table. It is something that he brings beyond the hardwood and even to his leisure time playing video games.

Siguro dati pa ako na ayaw ko matalo. I’m a guy who doesn’t wanna lose. I just wanna win all the time. Kahit sa mga PS4, [NBA] 2K, [and] PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds).”

We saw him run the orchestra eventually with the likes of Ben Mbala and Justine Baltazar. Vosotros may be gone but Montalbo had Aljun Melecio and Andrei Caracut. We also know that Kib can also make big shots and stops. Remember how he stepped up in the absence of Jeron in 2016 to nail a dagger triple over Adamson? Or how he relentlessly shutdown Jerrick Ahanmisi in the Final Four the next year?From leadership and hustle to locking down a scorer, how could one miss Montalbo’s efforts? It’s like missing the most important part of a movie. Imagine missing the part in Like Mike where Calvin Cambridge laced up those sneakers which once belonged to a “tall bald guy” with the initials “MJ”. What more missing Coach Ken Carter giving Timo Cruz a near-death sentence through an unfathomable amount of suicides and pushups that would make everyone cringe.

The experience under the Man of Steal’s belt was more valuable than ever with La Salle’s young team. With or without logging stats, with or without his thumb injury this season, he found a way to chip in. Shaking off concerns and playing injured displayed the heart of this two-time champion even more.

Although he did not have a storybook ending with the Green Archers, Montalbo without a doubt deserves to leave his legacy.

Been there, done that with a player’s struggles that commonly begin with playing time. “I always say to them na sa lahat ng trabahong makukuha mo, may frustrations. Whether you go work, abroad here, frustrations will always be there.”  

His turn of being a mentor in the Green Archers eventually came and now it has come to an end.  His blood-stained jersey from what proved to be his last UAAP game is a testament of his work ethic and willingness to give everything for La Salle.

The Man of Steal has clearly gone a long way from hooping in Bacolod to the distinct hardwood of the MOA Arena and Smart Araneta Coliseum. Despite his colorful UAAP journey, Kib continues to stay true to his humble roots of that boy who just dreamt of playing with the drums cheering him on.