MANILA, Philippines - The Ateneo de Manila (AdMU) Blue Eagles showed championship poise and composure in defeating the San Sebastian Golden Stags, 56-51, to force a do-or-die game in the Finals of the 2011 Philippine Collegiate Champions League (PCCL).
The Blue Eagles were steadier down the stretch of the close game, getting clutch performances from reigning Rookie of the Year Kiefer Ravena and Finals MVP Nico Salva.
The Stags, who have a twice-to-beat advantage in the Finals, unraveled in the final moments, committing turnovers and failing to execute their offense.
NCAA Season 87 Most Valuable Player Calvin Abueva compounded his team's woes by getting thrown out just as the Stags were attempting a comeback.
"I think our shots just didn't fall in, but luckily for us, our defense kept us in the game," Salva said afterwards.
Much like their Final Four meeting, the game was highly physical and close all throughout, with the Stags and the Blue Eagles exchanging leads in the first half.
San Sebastian took advantage of 16 turnovers by Ateneo in the first half alone, scoring easy fast-break points care of AJ Vitug and Jovit dela Cruz.
But the Blue Eagles cleaned up their act in the third quarter and tightened their defense to take control of the ball game.
"We made some adjustments and we were able to execute in the second half," Salva said.
Salva was at his best in the 3rd period, scoring 10 points on a variety of mid-range jumpers and hook shots.
The Stags struck back in the fourth period, however, holding the Blue Eagles scoreless in the first six minutes while Abueva led San Sebastian to 9-0 run to take the lead, 48-46.
Two free throws by Salva tied the game for the last time at 50-all, before Ravena made a turnaround fall-away jumper that gave the Blue Eagles the lead for good, 52-50.
The game was still within reach for the Stags, but Abueva did not help his team's cause when he committed his 5th foul with a little over a minute to go, and then got thrown out after shoving a referee.
Abueva's fouls allowed the Blue Eagles to ice the game from the free throw line, and force a deciding Game 2 on Thursday at The Arena.
Another win by Ateneo on Thursday will give them their third straight PCCL championship, capping a highly successful year that also saw them win their 4th straight UAAP title.
"It's gonna be the last game for the year, so we want to come out on top," Salva said after scoring 18 points to lead the Blue Eagles.
But the Stags will surely want to do the same, as they have a chance to make history by being the first team from the NCAA to win the PCCL championship.