MANILA, Philippines—(UPDATED) Ateneo de Manila University is on the verge of back-to-back UAAP championships after the Blue Eagles pulled away from University of the Philippines late in Game 1 of the Season 81 men's basketball finals.
Matt Nieto was unstoppable, Thirdy Ravena nearly had a triple-double, and the Blue Eagles hacked out an 88-79 triumph over the gutsy Fighting Maroons in front of a mammoth crowd at Mall of Asia Arena on Saturday.
"No question, I think that UP deserves to be in the finals," Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga said after the game. "We said that whoever will win that series between UP and Adamson will be a good match-up for us."
"So coming into this game, we were aware of that, and certainly, UP showed that they really deserve to be in the Finals," he added. "They played well."
The Fighting Maroons, playing on two days' rest and preparation, kept in step with the Blue Eagles for three quarters, surviving an injury scare to star big man Bright Akhuetie with 6:31 left in the third quarter.
Akhuetie returned for UP with 7:04 to play in the game, but his presence was not enough as the Fighting Maroons simply had no answer for the Nieto-Ravena tandem in the payoff period.
Ravena and Nieto, both former Blue Eaglets, conspired in the backbreaking 13-4 run that turned a slim 71-68 Ateneo lead into a commanding 84-72 advantage with three minutes left. Ravena repeatedly fished for fouls, while Nieto came up with a huge steal from Akhuetie for a transition bucket, then nailed the jumper that made it a 12-point game.
After a split at the line by Paul Desiderio with 2:32 left, Nieto drilled the proverbial dagger by firing a three-pointer for a 14-point cushion, 87-73, with 2:09 remaining.
UP chipped away at the deficit through Akhuetie and Juan Gomez de Liano, but they ran out of time as the Blue Eagles settled for the nine-point victory.
"We just did our roles," said Ravena. "They had runs, we had our runs. Pinakita talaga nila na deserving sila sa finals. At the end of the game, breaks of the game na naka-alagwa kami ng huli."
"It was a tough, tough game, so I wanna praise UP for that game," he added.
Nieto registered a career-high 27 points, making 9 of his 16 field goals. Ravena tallied 21 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in a superb all-around performance, setting the tone of the game by scoring 11 points in the first quarter.
It was Jun Manzo who led the way for UP with 19 points, while Gomez de Liano had 17 points and 8 rebounds. However, the two guards also combined for 10 of UP's 19 turnovers in the game.
Javi Gomez de Liano had 11 points, and Akhuetie was held to 10 points and 5 rebounds. Paul Desiderio, the hero of UP's triumph over Adamson University in the final 4, never got going and was held to only 5 points in more than 31 minutes of action.
But UP, playing in the finals for the first time in 32 years, never appeared out of its depth until the fourth, when the Blue Eagles finally built a more comfortable lead. Even after the defending champions pulled away early 17-7 UP caught up thanks to the hot three-point shooting of Javi Gomez de Liano and Diego Dario.
Manzo came alive in the second quarter, repeatedly burning his defenders to score from all angles. His three-pointer at the halftime buzzer made it a one-point game, 39-38, entering the break. He continued to wax hot from behind the arc in the third period, and Javi Gomez de Liano and Desiderio came up with big buckets in the final minute to make it a 2-point game, 63-61, heading into the payoff period.
Once there, however, Ateneo's poise proved too much, with Nieto and Ravena eventually lifting the Blue Eagles to victory.
Now up 1-0 in the best-of-3 series, the Blue Eagles can secure the championship — their second straight, and 10th overall — on Wednesday's Game 2 at Araneta Coliseum.
Ateneo (88) – Nieto Ma. 27, Ravena 21, Kouame 7, Verano 6, Tio 6, Mamuyac 5, Asistio 4, Nieto Mi. 4, Wong 3, Mendoza 3, Go 2, Navarro 0.
UP (79) – Manzo 19, Gomez de Liaño Ju. 17, Gomez de Liaño 11, Akhuetie 10, Dario 9, Desiderio 5, Tungcab 3, Vito 3, Prado 2, Murrell 0, Jaboneta 0, Gozum 0.
Quarterscores: 26-18, 39-38, 63-61, 88-79.
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