MATT Nieto fired a career-high 27 points as Ateneo subdued University of the Philippines, 88-79, to move on the cusp of claiming a second straight title last night in the UAAP men’s basketball Finals at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Blue Eagles only broke away in the payoff period, as Matt Nieto’s triple gave the defending champions the biggest lead of the game, 87-73, with 2:09 left.
Aside from his offense and hustle off the boards, Thirdy Ravena also served as facilitator for Ateneo, which is gunning for its 10th crown overall with a victory in Game 2 at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Ravena, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds, flirted with a triple-double, dishing out a team-high nine assists.
Assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga praised the Fighting Maroons, who are making their first championship appearance in 32 years, for giving them fits in the opener.
“No question. I think that UP deserves to be in the Finals,” said Arespacochaga. “Actually, we said that whoever wins that series between UP and Adamson will be a good match-up for us and we got to make sure that we play a good offensive and defensive game for us to win.”
Jun Manzo paced the Maroons with 19 points while Juan Gomez de Liaño chipped in 17 points and eight rebounds.
UP got a scare as Bright Akhuetie hurt his left shin midway in the third period, but the Nigerian slotman was able to come back at the 7:04 mark of the fourth quarter.
Akhuetie, who will receive the season MVP award prior to Game 2, still finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
“For being first time in the Finals, I have to appreciate the effort my boys showed,” said UP coach Bo Perasol.
Paul Desiderio, the graduating Maroons skipper, was held to five points by the tough defense of Eagles guard Gian Mamuyac.
All is not lost for UP, which hurdled Adamson twice in the Final Four to make it to the title round after a 32-year wait, as it remains upbeat to pull another improbable run.
“I’m still very positive about our chances. I’m sure we will be better come Wednesday,” said Perasol.
With a locked in Ravena dropping 11 points, the Eagles raced to a 19-7 advantage with 3:06 remaining in the opening period.
The Maroons got their acts together, taking the upper hand at 35-32 on a Juan Gomez de Liaño triple at the 3:07 mark of the second period.
Anton Asistio sparked Ateneo’s 7-0 run before UP was able to cut the deficit to one at the break courtesy of Manzo’s buzzer-beating triple.
The backcourt combo of Manzo and Juan Gomez de Liaño teamed up for 15 points in the second period, outscoring the entire Eagles team.
Ateneo (88) – Nieto Ma. 27, Ravena 21, Kouame 7, Verano 6, Tio 6, Mamu-yac 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.
Quarterscores: 26-18, 39-38, 63-61, 88-79