MANILA, Philippines -- By their own admission, Ateneo de Manila University veterans Matt and Mike Nieto are still far from peak condition after returning from a four-game absence in the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
The Nieto twins missed Ateneo's first four games of the second round, with Matt forced to sit out the second half of their game against Far Eastern University last October 10 due to an injury to his left pinky finger.
He had surgery for the injury soon after, and missed their next four games to recover. Mike, for his part, suffered an ankle sprain in training that also caused him to miss time. To compound their woes, the Nieto twins also came down with dengue mere days after suffering their respective injuries.
"Almost five days kaming naka-confine ni Matt eh. So ayun, ang lungkot ng buhay namin sa ospital, nanonood lang kami," Mike said.
"At least ngayon naglalaro na ako kasi sinurgery siya, para makabalik ako kaagad. Kasi 'pag hindi sinurgery, mas matagal siya bago ako maka-recover, so after ma-injure, sinurgery agad, para makabalik," said Matt, for his part.
They finally made their comeback when Ateneo played Adamson University at the Ynares Center in Antipolo on Sunday evening, with Mike netting two points in 12 minutes of action, and Matt contributing five points in just under 15 minutes.
Matt's last two points were crucial, as he nailed a baseline floater with 1:34 left that pushed Ateneo ahead, 60-45, and dashed Adamson's hopes of making a comeback. The Blue Eagles went on to take a 62-48 win that hiked their record to 10-2, and bolstered their bid for a twice-to-beat incentive in the Final 4.
"Of course it's great to be back, but as you can see naman sa court, medyo wala pa sa timing," said Mike afterward.
"At least, we're very grateful na nakabalik na kami, and we'll just get ready and be better kasi it's a big game next week against La Salle," he added.
Like his twin brother, Matt acknowledged that he too has yet to regain his game shape.
"Getting back to shape kasi noong last Wednesday lang kami nag-practice ni Mike na live contact," he explained.
"So for me, kaunting conditioning pa," he added.
"Good thing na ang next game namin, we have a week to prepare again," Matt added. "So talagang bakbakan ngayon, conditioning na talaga para maka-get back in shape."
The Blue Eagles went 4-0 without the Nieto twins, a winning run that included an 82-62 rout of Far Eastern University where Ateneo also played without Thirdy Ravena.
For the Nietos, it was no surprise to see their team reel off the victories even while short-handed.
"Masaya kami ni Matt, but knowing the depth of our team, that's just expected of us," said Mike. "For the hard work that we put in during the offseason, talagang lalabas at lalabas lang 'yun."
"Sumisikat nga 'yung line ngayon na 'next man up.' And, we expected that, kasi 'yun nga, ang lalim ng bench namin. That's just the result of hard work for us," he added.
Now, however, they are at full strength -- just in time for the closing stretch of the elimination round.
"Talagang 16 strong na kami," said Matt.
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