MANILA, Philippines – Ateneo displayed tested championship mettle as the Blue Eagles downed the gritty University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, 88-79, in a heated Game 1 showdown of the UAAP Season 81 Finals at the Mall of Asia Arena on Saturday, December 1.
Matt Nieto erupted for a career-high 27 points, highlighted by a 4-of-5 (80%) clip from downtown and Thirdy Ravena flirted with a triple double as the Blue Eagles moved within a win of a second straight men's basketball crown.
Ravena was one assist shy of a triple-double after a 21-point, 10-rebound, 9-assist masterpiece with 2 steals and 2 blocks.
"No question, I think that UP deserves to be in the Finals," said Ateneo deputy Sandy Arespacochaga. "Actually, we said whoever will win that [UP-Adamson semis] series, will be a good matchup for us, and we've got to make sure that we play a good offensive and defensive game in order for us to win."
Things got heated between both sides when Ateneo rookie Ange Kouame bumped UP star Bright Akhuetie at the 6:31 mark of the 3rd frame.
Akhuetie repeatedly banged his fist on the court and writhed in pain before being stretchered out due to an apparent left leg injury.
But just when it looked like he's out for the rest of the game, the season MVP surprisingly returned at the 7:04 mark of the 4th with Ateneo leading 71-66, much to the delight of the packed UP side.
Akhuetie later drained two charities to bring UP within 3, 68-71, but Ateneo held on in the final stretch.
Nieto made it an eight-point game, 80-72, with a bucket off a steal with 4:15 minutes left in regulation.
Kouame sank two more foul shots at the 3:36 mark to give Ateneo a double-digit lead, 82-72.
The Eagles further extended the gap to 12, 84-72, off a corner jumper by Nieto with less than 3 minutes to go. He then followed that up with a dagger three, 87-73, exactly at the last 2 minutes.
Jun Manzo led the Maroons' efforts with 19 points, 4 boards and 3 dimes on a hot 8-of-11 (73%) clip.
Juan Gomez de Liaño also had 17 markers and 8 boards off the UP bench. Final Four hero Paul Desiderio got clamped to just 5 points but dished 8 assists and grabbed 6 rebounds before fouling out in the last minute of regulation.
Although Ateneo got out to a 12-point lead, 22-10, early in the 1st quarter, UP charged back within striking distance in the 2nd off key triples from Diego Dario and Javi Gomez de Liaño.
The younger Gomez de Liaño brother, Juan, capped off the fightback with a go-ahead long bomb, 35-32, at the 3:06 mark.
The Eagles would retake a four-point lead, 39-35, near the end of the frame, but Jun Manzo erased that with a halftime buzzer-beating triple to inch within 1, 38-39.
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 Ja. 11, Akhuetie 10, Dario 9, Desiderio 5, Tungcab 3, Vito 3, Prado 2, Murrell 0, Jaboneta 0, Gozum 0.
Quarters: 26-18, 39-38, 63-61, 88-79.