MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles bucked a slow start and leaned on their championship poise in the end game as they drew first blood against the University of Sto. Tomas Growling Tigers, 83-78, in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 75 Finals Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Graduating forward Nico Salva exploded for a career-high 30 points, while Kiefer Ravena, Juami Tiongson and Ryan Buenafe all scored in double-digits as the Blue Eagles overhauled a 31-38 halftime deficit.
A crowd of 20,686 watched a tense, hotly contested game that saw both squads make big plays, especially in the second half. Much like their two encounters in the second round, the game went down to the final moments, but it was the Blue Eagles' championship experience that made the difference.
"In the first half, we got some good looks but we didn't have much confidence in our shots. We missed a lot of easy shots," Ateneo head coach Norman Black said. "I talked to the players at halftime and told them to be aggressive."
The Eagles were sloppy to start the game, turning the ball over 10 times in the first half that the Tigers converted into 10 points.
Salva's 15 first half points helped keep the Eagles within striking distance, but he got little help from his teammates. Big man Greg Slaughter only had 4 points in the first half as he struggled with UST's triple-teams, while Final Four hero Kiefer Ravena had only two points off free throws and missed all five of his field goal attempts.
But the tide turned quickly in the second half as Black's halftime huddle seemed to have fired up the four-time defending champions.
"In the second half, we just decided to bring the ball inside like we've been doing the entire year," Black said.
With Salva continuing to wax hot and Ravena and Buenafe both making plays, the Eagles quickly erased UST's halftime lead.
A turnaround baseline jumper by Buenafe tied the game at 38-all, and then a putback by Salva gave the Blue Eagles the lead. Ravena then made his first field goal of the game, a long three-pointer to extend the Eagles' advantage.
Even a timeout by UST did not cool off the Blue Eagles. When the dust settled, they had reeled off 17 straight points, turning a 31-38 deficit into a 47-38 lead.
Ateneo would lead by as much as 11 points and entered the final quarter with a seemingly comfortable 61-51 advantage. But as they have done time and again in Season 75, the Growling Tigers mounted a comeback.
With Aljon Mariano and Jeric Teng leading the way, the Tigers started the fourth quarter on a 13-2 run, capped by a Karim Abdul slam dunk that gave UST a 64-63 lead.
But the advantage was short-lived. Salva drained another jumper, followed by another twinner by Buenafe, to put Ateneo ahead, 67-64. The Tigers continued to threaten, however, coming as close as 70-71 on a fastbreak lay-up by Teng.
It was then that Buenafe and Tiongson took over. They combined to lead the Eagles in a 10-2 run, with Buenafe even completing a rare four-point play, to put Ateneo ahead 81-72 with just a little over a minute remaining.
The Tigers refused to go away quietly. Teng made two consecutive three-pointers, the last one coming with only 36 seconds to go, to make it 78-81.
The Tigers' comeback hopes suffered a huge blow when Abdul was called for his fifth foul, however, to the disgust of the UST coaching staff and crowd. With 8.8 seconds left, Ravena drilled a jumper that proved to be the dagger.
The Blue Eagles wound up outscoring the Tigers, 52-40, in the second half.
Black later commended his veterans for coming up big in crunch time, especially Tiongson and Buenafe, who were both vital in the Eagles' game-clinching run.
"Juami (Tiongson) struggled a little bit in the first half with his decision-making... (But he) has been doing big plays and hitting big shots for us," he added.
Of Buenafe, Black said: "He's done it over and over again. He's a player who comes up big when the game is on the line."
Slaughter had only 5 points, though he did grab 12 rebounds, but Black said the big man was still able to help the team even as he struggled to score.
"If you look at it realistically, every time he gets the ball, he gets triple-teamed," Black pointed out. "Everybody is trying to stop him from scoring and dominating the game. It's opening things up for the other players."
Salva's big game
Salva was the main beneficiary of the attention paid to Slaughter. Left open time and again by the UST defense, he proceeded to make 13-of-22 of his field goal attempts, as well as one three pointer.
"I just want to win, so I really gave it my all. I told myself before the game to do everything I can... It helps that I have teammates like Ryan, Kiefer and Greg so that opens up the game for me as well," he said.
Salva became the third player since 2001 to score 30+ points in a Finals game, joining fellow Ateneans LA Tenorio (30 points in 2001) and Rabeh Al-Hussain (31 points in 2008).
He also became the fourth player this season to score 30 points, following National University's Bobby Ray Parks Jr., La Salle's Jeron Teng and Adamson's Jericho Cruz.
Interestingly, Salva's previous career high came during last season's UAAP Finals, when he scored 24 points on 8-of-8 shooting from the field as well as 8-of-8 from the line.
His heroic efforts negated the performances of Teng (25 points) and Mariano (22 points, 12 rebounds). It did not help that Abdul was held to only nine points and six boards.
Even UST head coach Pido Jarencio praised Salva. "It was a breakout game for Nico. Ang ganda talaga ng nilaro ng bata," Jarencio said.
But once again, Jarencio railed about the officiating. The fiery UST head coach confronted the referees at the end of the game and once again claimed that his team was not given a fair shake.
"Hindi naman patas ‘yung tawagan," he said, pointing out that Abdul and swingman Kevin Ferrer were both in foul trouble early in the second half. "Dahil UST lang ba kami kaya ganoon ang tawagan?"
"Let the players decide the game, not the officiating," Jarencio added.
But Jarencio also gave his players high praise, especially for their fourth-quarter comeback.
"Magpapakamatay 'yung mga bata. Lumamang pa nga kami ng isa. Lamang na sila ng sampu, pero hindi kami bumitaw," he said. "Saan mo hahanapin 'yung ganoong players?"
He also expects his players to settle down in Game 2.
"Binigyan namin ng magandang laban ang Ateneo, eh apat na taon na sila nasa championship, ang experience alam na nila," Jarencio said. "Ngayon, 'yung experience na feel na nila, mawawala na ang pressure pagdating ng Thursday game."
Jarencio also said that the Tigers do not plan to file a protest about the game. "Walang complaints," he said.
After committing 10 turnovers in the first half, the Eagles gave the ball away only three times in the second half. They also out-rebounded the Tigers, 45-35, and had more assists, 16-12.
Still, Black fully expects the Tigers to come back with a vengeance in Game 2.
"They're a very good team and that's the reason they're in the Finals... It should be another good game. We'll just prepare, we can play a lot better than we played today," he said. "We'll try to have a better start in Game 2."
With their victory, the Blue Eagles are now one victory away from clinching their fifth straight UAAP championship. But the Tigers are hoping that they can repeat their 2006 miracle, wherein they lost the series opener but won the next two games to win the Season 69 title.
The two squads split their two elimination round games, with UST taking the first game 71-70 before Ateneo got their revenge in round 2, 68-66.
ADMU 83 - Salva 30, Ravena 13, Tiongson 12, Buenafe 10, Chua 9, Slaughter 5, GOnzaga 2, Elorde 2, Sumalinog 0, Golla 0
UST 78 - Teng 25, Mariano 22, Ferrer 13, Abdul 9, Fortuna 4, Lo 3, Pe 2, Bautista 0
Quarter scoring: 18-24, 31-38, 61-51, 83-78