UP's Henry Asilum (R) attempts a layup against Ateneo's Matthew Nieto (L). Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines – The spotlight was not on Matthew Nieto.
Nieto, a member of the UAAP Season 77 juniors Mythical Five, a champion with the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, committed to collegiate basketball for Ateneo along with his twin brother, Mike, as early as January. Their commitment came as little surprise since the Nietos have been studying in Ateneo since their grade school days.
No, the spotlight wasn't on Matthew Nieto. He happened to play the same position – point guard – as two of the more celebrated – and controversial – recruits of the past two years: Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani.
Heading into the UAAP Season 78 tournament, questions swirled around Pingoy and Cani – will they be allowed to play? How will they adjust to a long period of inactivity? Can they live up to the hype? Will they have "revenge games" against their high schools?
There were very few questions about Matthew Nieto.
Pingoy started for Ateneo in their first game, a huge 64-88 loss to his high school alma mater, Far Eastern University. Cani started in the next game, an 84-60 victory against the Adamson Falcons. In their third game, against defending champion National University, it was Matt Nieto's turn to start.
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He has been the starter ever since.
Nieto started for the fourth consecutive time on Wednesday, this time against the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons in the so-called "Battle of Katipunan." He played almost 23 minutes and finished with four points, four rebounds, three assists, one highlight reel block, and no turnovers.
After helping Ateneo beat UP 56-43, Nieto downplayed his role as Ateneo's starting point guard, saying he was just "always ready" to play as his coaches and teammates tell him to.
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"I just did my best," he told ABS-CBNnews.com. "Pinakita ko sa kanila that I can be a starter and that I can be a trustworthy point guard, like Koko (Pingoy) and Hubert."
"It's a product of hard work," Nieto also said of his role. "Overlooked ako dati, pero 'di ko talaga pinansin 'yun."
He credited his father, former Blue Eagle Jett Nieto, and his twin brother Mike, for boosting his confidence so that he learned to believe that he can start for Ateneo.
"They convinced me that I can do it," Matthew said. "Eventually, naging maganda 'yung result."
Nieto 'knows his job'
Ateneo's Matthew Nieto (L) dribbles past UP's Jerson Prado (R). Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
Ateneo coach Bo Perasol is pleasantly surprised to see how quickly Matthew adjusted to the college game, though he believes it helps that he starts next to Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal, who were also former stars for the Blue Eaglets.
"It's about understanding kung ano ba ang kailangan niyang gawin," Perasol said. "Hindi niya kailangan umiskor. Pasa, depensa, taga-tawid. Nakuha niya 'yung trabaho."
With Ravena and Pessumal in the starting line-up, Nieto knows that he does not need to score or even look for his own shot at all. Instead, he works to organize the offense, helping lead his senior teammates to their spots on the floor. He has also been impressive on defense, taking the challenge of stopping the other team's starting point guards.
In six games, Matthew has been averaging 4.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game while playing 18.6 minutes. He is averaging more minutes per game than both Pingoy and Cani.
"Ang mindset ko lang is, kung ano ang makakatulong sa team, 'yun ang gagawin ko," said Matthew. "Kung ano ang kulang sa team, I'll try to fill it. Of course, ang mission ko sa loob is to set up Von and Kiefer, and to play defense."
"He's actually steady," said Perasol. "That's what he brings to the team – stability. Complement siya with both scorers (Pessumal and Ravena). Defensively, siyempre 'yung dalawa minsan nagl-lie low sa depensa, so s'ya 'yung kumukuha. Malaking bagay ang naitutulong niya."
Perasol said that giving Nieto the starting job doesn't mean that "Koko and Hubert are less of talents that Matt." It just happens that Nieto is a better fit next to Ravena and Pessumal, who are the leading scorers of the team. Moreover, both Pingoy and Cani are still working their way to full game shape after serving residency years wherein they rarely played competitive basketball.
The one person who is not surprised to see how well Matthew has been playing is Ravena, who told ABS-CBNnews.com that Nieto "is there for a reason."
"I'm proud of the kid, kasi sobrang buo ng loob niya," Ravena added.
Pingoy, for his part, said he has absolutely no issues with Matthew getting the starting nod over him.
"Kung manalo o matalo kami, we're a team. Walang sisihan or naiinis man sa amin. At least nananalo kami. Kung matalo kami, sa amin na 'yun," said Pingoy, who adds that he is choosing to "value my minutes" instead of stressing over the starting job.
Waiting for Big Mike
While Matthew has gotten the nod of the coaching job and is earning plaudits from Ateneo fans, his brother, Mike, has been stuck to the bench for the past three games. "Big Mike," an MVP in the UAAP Juniors, has played only three games so far in his collegiate career, with an average of 2.9 minutes.
"Si Mike, kailangan medyo maghintay talaga siya," Perasol said. "Four (power forward) na siya, nag-adjust na s'ya actually. 'Yan na ang trabaho niya. He just needs to get the necessary skills, like ball-handling, pero alam niya na ang position niya."
Mike played mostly center and power forward in high school, but will have to shift to a more perimeter-based game now that he is in the seniors. He has yet to get the chance to show if he has developed the skills that Perasol wants to see from him, but Matthew is confident that his twin brother will get there.
"I can see that Mike is doing what I was doing before. He's playing and he's practicing real hard," he said. "His effort is there, and his heart is there."
"Eventually, he'll get his time, and he has to grab the opportunity when he does."