MANILA, Philippines – Ateneo de Manila University point guard Matt Nieto was rightly hailed as the hero of the Blue Eagles' stunning victory over their archrivals, the De La Salle University Green Archers, in their first round encounter of UAAP Season 80.
Nieto came up with the biggest plays of the game, tipping off Kib Montalbo's inbound pass to Andrei Caracut, then drained clutch free throws with 3.9 seconds to go to provide Ateneo with a 76-75 advantage.
The Blue Eagles then came up with a superb defensive stand against La Salle center Ben Mbala in the final possession of the game, allowing them to end the first round with a perfect 7-0 win-loss record.
Yet when asked to discuss his game-winning efforts after the game, Nieto was as business-like as ever.
"I was denying Andrei yata, and then when I looked behind, I saw that everybody was denied also," he explained. "So 'yung chance lang is Andrei getting that lob from Kib. So I tried to tempt them to lob the pass, and when the lob is there, I just tipped it to our court."
Indeed, Nieto made sure to credit Ateneo rookie Gian Mamuyac for helping him in the defensive play. Upon seeing Nieto tip the ball to the Ateneo court, Mamuyac raced to the other end and bothered Caracut anew, allowing Nieto to complete the steal.
Montalbo was thus forced to foul Nieto and send him to the line. The Ateneo guard was 1-of-2 at the stripe at that point, having missed a free throw with 1:57 left to play that allowed La Salle to take the slim lead in the first place.
With the game on the line, however, Nieto went back to what works for him.
"I was just relaxed," he said. "We're always practicing our free throws every day, and it's always my routine. It's the same routine, whether it's the first free throw sa game, or my last free throw."
"So I shot it like it's just my normal routine," he added. "Luckily, buti naman nag-pay off 'yung practice ko ng free throw."
Nieto received tremendous praise from his coaches and his teammates for his clutch plays, with Thirdy Ravena thanking his longtime teammate for bailing him out in the endgame, and coach Sandy Arespacochaga hailing his point guard's maturity.
Yet Nieto himself said he sees no need to dwell too much on his own heroics, even though it came in a stage as big as an Ateneo-La Salle game.
"I won't let it go to my mind," he said. "Next game na lang ang iisipin ko."
"When it comes, another opportunity like that, I will just follow Coach Tab (Baldwin) because he knows best," he added.
Nieto further added that despite their 7-0 record and their win over the defending champions, there is still a long way to go for the Blue Eagles.
"Walang gustong magpatalo," he said. "Iba talaga pag Ateneo-La Salle. But more improvement. Makikita niyo na we managed to keep our turnovers low, but (still) lots of room to improve on."
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