Go, Nieto power Eagles to Finals
After waiting for almost two weeks to get redemption, Ateneo center Isaac Go came through with the biggest shot of his career to buy the Blue Eagles an extra five minutes to get the job done.
Then Matt Nieto swooped in and completed the mission.
The result? Another dose of the country’s fiercest basketball rivalry on college hoops’ grandest stage.
Go rescued Ateneo’s season with a clutch triple that forced overtime before Nieto racked up five straight crucial points that provided the needed buffer in an 88-84 victory over a hard-fighting Far Eastern University Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena that gave the Blue Eagles the last UAAP Finals berth.
The Eagles, who entered the Final Four as the No. 1 seed, will face defending champion and No. 2 seed La Salle in an expectedly mammoth best-of-three tussle for the crown.
“I couldn’t allow our season to end like this,” said Nieto, after blowing a defensive cover that allowed Jasper Parker to give FEU a one-point lead late in the game. “We’ve been through so much, we worked so hard, we didn’t want our season to end.”
And boy did the Eagles come close to their season’s end.
Racking up 13 straight wins in the elimination round, Ateneo missed out on an outright Finals berth after Go bungled a point-black shot against La Salle in the stretch that could have sealed an elimination-round sweep.
The 6-foot-8 center endured long nights of scrutiny and doubt after that shot. He completely redeemed himself with a basket much farther and with much more at stake.
“For the three, I just have to thank Coach Tab (Baldwin) because he believed in me,” said Go, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds.
“He had more confidence in me than I had in myself. After the game, all I could say was thank you. His belief in me and my teammates and the coaching staff helped me make that shot.”
Faced with a three-point deficit and the stunning prospect of an upset at the hands of the fourth-seeded Tamaraws, Go took a feed from Nieto and fired his triple over Richard Escoto to tie the game at 75 with 8.5 seconds left in regulation.
And it wasn’t lost on the Ateneo bench just how huge that shot was, especially after Parker put FEU up by three with a pair of free throws.
“That seemed like a lost game, but the players really stayed focused,” said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.
After Arvin Tolentino bungled FEU’s final play in regulation—the ball slipped from his hands as he tried a drive-and-pull-up move against Go—the former Xavier star had one more key play left for Ateneo.
Nieto put Ateneo up by five in overtime after swishing in a running jumper and a clutch three from the top of the key. Escoto trimmed the deficit to three, 85-82, with a mid-range jumper.
Ateneo missed its next attempt, but Go collected the offensive rebound, fell to the ground, and banked in a short stab with a knee on the floor to seal the win.
“The last shot, when I got the ball, I just put it up because it might get loose,” said Go. “What’s the worst that could happen [if I missed it]?”
Looking sharper than the team that finished the elimination round with just seven wins, the Tamaraws stayed in the coattails of the Eagles, before unleashing an 18-5 blitz starting late in the third period to take a 65-59 advantage on Prince Orizu’s lay-up.
Parker was a handful for the Eagles with the fleet-footed playmaker finishing with 19 points only to leave the game briefly in overtime due to cramps.
But the FEU run exposed the Eagles’ vulnerabilities anew in the same way the Tamaraws toyed with them in an 80-67 win last Sunday that sent their Final Four matchup to a deciding game.
The Eagles dug deep heading into crunchtime, slowly clawing their way back into the contest, behind Thirdy Ravena and Mike Nieto, before Go’s big triple bailed them out to force the first overtime game of the season.
“We were ready to play a close game, and that’s what happened,” said Arespacochaga. “Of course, credit to our players who never gave up and stayed focused and stuck to the game plan. There were ups and downs but what a great game, and we’re happy that our players experienced that. We could see their growth in the game and we’re happy they got to experience that.”
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