MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE)—The three-peat is within sight for the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
The Blue Eagles picked up from where they left off in the elimination round, claiming a 91-77 triumph over University of Santo Tomas in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball Finals, Saturday at Araneta Coliseum.
A crowd of 19,176 fans watched as the Blue Eagles — well-rested and well-prepared after a 16-day layoff — racked up their 25th straight win dating back to last season, and closed in on their third consecutive men's basketball title.
Meanwhile, it was a sorry defeat for the Growling Tigers, who entered the best-of-3 finals with all the momentum after a tremendous run in the stepladder semis. They had knocked off Far Eastern University, 81-71, in the first phase, before overcoming a twice-to-beat disadvantage against University of the Philippines in the second round.
Third time was still not the charm for the Aldin Ayo-coached squad, however, as they failed to beat the Blue Eagles in their third try this season.
Thirdy Ravena was absolutely unstoppable, scoring 11 points in the opening frame to set the tone for the Blue Eagles. He finished with 32 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Also shining was Ange Kouame, who had a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds. SJ Belangel had 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting from behind the arc, as Ateneo shot 52.05% from the field.
"It's good to get the win, obviously, but we tend to not really see that as a win," said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin after the game. "We see that as a first half of basketball."
"We just get a long halftime break, where we get to prepare for the second half, which would be, in your eyes, Game 2," he added.
The Blue Eagles are now 15-0 in Season 82, and can complete a perfect campaign with another victory on Wednesday's Game 2 at Mall of Asia Arena.
UST, meanwhile, will try to stave off elimination for the fourth time in this postseason.
The Blue Eagles were on fire to start the game, racing off to an 18-2 start after the first five minutes. Ravena accounted for 11 of those points, as the defending champions pounced on the Growling Tigers' turnovers and poor shots.
They led 32-17 after the opening frame, with a buzzer-beating triple by Renzo Subido giving the Tigers some momentum heading into the second period. UST's rookie guard Mark Nonoy came alive in that frame and shot his team back into the contest.
The speedy point guard waxed hot from behind the arc, nailing three 3-pointers including the long-range bomb that made it a one-possession game, 41-38, with still 2:43 to play in the first half.
"Mark Nonoy is obviously a problem," said Baldwin after the game. "Tremendous game, (but) he ran himself right into the ground. That's very courageous."
The Blue Eagles ended the first half on a blistering note, however. SJ Belangel matched Nonoy with three triples as well, anchoring a 13-1 blitz that pushed Ateneo ahead, 54-39, at the break.
It was the "Thirdy Ravena Show" in the third quarter, though, as the graduating forward scored in a variety of ways to increase the Blue Eagles' lead. He had 14 points in the period, including the fastbreak layup that gave Ateneo its biggest lead, 66-43, with 6:14 to play.
Three-pointers by Brent Paraiso and Sherwin Concepcion helped the Tigers claw their way back, but Belangel once again came up with a big triple of his own to send the Blue Eagles into the fourth quarter with a 76-58 advantage.
Nonoy continued his scoring exploits in the final period, and his three-pointer with under four minutes left made it a 15-point game, 84-69. Ateneo simply had too much firepower, however. Kouame scored off a slam dunk, and Matt Nieto picked off a pass and scored in transition to make it 88-69. A triple by Paraiso was answered by Gian Mamuyac with 1:32 left for a 91-72 spread, and the Blue Eagles cruised from there.
JOB NOT DONE
Baldwin was quick to downplay Ateneo's triumph, as the Blue Eagles shifted their focus immediately to Wednesday's match-up.
"This was a must-win game for us," he said. "And I don't see Wednesday as any different. It's a must-win game for us."
Plenty of the Blue Eagles' focus will be on Nonoy, who finished with 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting along with 5 rebounds. Paraiso finished with 14 points, while Season 82 MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo was limited to 13 points and 10 boards.
Rhenz Abando was shackled to just 3 points on 1-of-5 shooting, while Subido -- the hero of their win over UP last week -- had 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field. The Tigers as a team made just 37.84% of their shots. They also committed 16 turnovers that Ateneo turned into 27 points.
ATENEO 91 - Ravena 32, Kouame 18, Belangel 12, Mamuyac 9, Navarro 6, Nieto Mi 5, Nieto Ma 5, Wong 3, Daves 2, Andrade 0, Go 0, Maagdenberg 0, Mallillin 0
UST 77 - Nonoy 26, Paraiso 14, Chabi Yo 13, Subido 8, Cansino 4, Abando 3, Concepcion 3, Ando 2, Bataller 2, Huang 2
QUARTER SCORES: 32-17, 54-39, 76-58, 91-77.
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