His brother’s keeper
His twin brother slumped on the floor and bloodied, Ateneo forward Mike Nieto stood up from his seat on the bench and emphatically threw his towel on the floor in frustration.
Matt Nieto had taken an elbow to the face from Ben Mbala as he tried to seal a double-team off the La Salle star’s spin to the basket. But instead of an offensive foul being called on Mbala, the Ateneo guard was whistled for a block.
The play late in the second period not only typified the Blue Eagles’ commitment to stop the Archers’ main man but also served as motivation for the game-changing burst that helped Ateneo overcome La Salle, 76-70, in the series opener of their UAAP Season 80 best-of-three finals at Mall of Asia Arena.
Mike Nieto scored all of his 11 points in the second half, before Thirdy Ravena and Isaac Go joined forces to put the game beyond the Archers’ reach as the Eagles moved within a win of claiming the crown and exacting revenge for last season’s finals defeat.
“To be honest, when Matt fell after he was hit by Ben’s elbow, I felt like I was also hurt,” said Mike, who was born two minutes ahead of his twin brother.
“I don’t want to see my brother getting hurt, but I also didn’t want to retaliate by hurting La Salle physically; I just wanted to win the game. I just got really motivated and I knew I really needed to step up especially these kinds of games which I really enjoy.”
The older Nieto racked up his 11 points in consecutive fashion, via a surge bridging the third and fourth periods as the Eagles recovered from a La Salle rally and erected a 10-point lead, 69-59—enough of a buffer to weather the Archers’ final fight-back.
Ravena finished with 12 points, while Matt Nieto also had 11 points, including seven in the opening period—although his biggest play could turn out to be the one that led to his brother’s inspired play in the second half.
“I was really expecting the spin [move] from Ben and I really wanted to get that possession,” said Matt Nieto, who suffered a huge cut above his left eye in the aftermath of the incident.
“Even though I didn’t get the call, I just wanted to sacrifice my body—even my face—to get that possession that can win us the game.”
The Eagles hardly gave Mbala, the reigning MVP, room to breathe as the Cameroonian was held to a UAAP career-low eight points on just seven shots.
The 6-foot-8 Mbala was also hobbled by foul trouble and the Eagles made their move in the final quarter at a time when he was on the bench after Mike Nieto drew his fourth foul and completed a three-point play for a 67-59 advantage.
“We couldn’t play Ben Mbala straight up one-on-one,” admitted Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga. “We needed all of our five guys to come up and do the roles in order to slow down Ben.”
With Mbala struggling, Aljun Melecio took the scoring cudgels, scoring a tough jumper for his game-high 24th point with 2:32 remaining to put La Salle within a point, 71-70.
But that turned out to be the Archers’ last field goal as Ravena scored on a putback and Go reprised his heroics from the Final Four win against Far Eastern U with a short stab—and a bonus free throw—off a Ravena assist with 10.6 seconds remaining to peg the final count.
“We don’t really care who makes that last shot,” said Go, who forced overtime with a late triple against FEU and also made a basket that sealed the win for the Eagles in the extra period in their do-or-die clash last Wednesday.
“It could have been Thirdy, it could have been Matt, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a score for Ateneo.”
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