Eagles land first blow
Thirdy Ravena put on a show right at the start. And when Ateneo faced adversity, he was there to keep the defending champions from falling apart at the seams. And when the University of the Philippines caught a whiff of an upset, Matt Nieto stepped up to remind everyone why the Eagles are favorites in the UAAP Finals.
Nieto scored 19 of his career-best scoring output in the second half while Ravena flirted with a triple-double as Ateneo repulsed every challenge mounted by the UP Maroons Saturday and carved out an 88-79 Game 1 victory at Mall of Asia Arena that put the Eagles on the cusp of repeating as champions.
Ravena was all over the court to push Ateneo to an early lead, but when Jun Manzo and the Maroons tried to ride the momentum of their dramatic semifinal victory over Adamson, Nieto pitched in and helped prick their bubble.
“[C]oming into the Finals, we knew that they were still on that momentum off the series with Adamson,” Ravena said. “Those were two grind-out games. Minsan, hindi tumitigil ‘yun (momentum won’t quit) unless you stop it—with preparation.”
“Hindi biro ‘yung UP (UP is no joke),” Nieto chimed in. “They’re a different team from the last two games we met them.”
Manzo certainly gave the Maroons a different look on offense, burying triples and knocking in drives to finish with 19 points. He joined hands with Gomez de Liaño brothers Javi and Juan in the second quarter to resurrect UP’s drive after Ateneo burst out of the gates to build a 12-point lead.
UP trailed by a point going into the half and even took the lead briefly to open the third before Nieto rallied the Eagles.
“I blame myself for that,” the crafty Nieto said of their inability to break away early. “We just had to find our rhythm on the fly and of course, play the defense—the system of coach Tab (Baldwin).”
Nieto finished with a career-high 27 points, three steals and an assist to go with Ravena’s near triple-double of 21 points, 10 boards and nine dimes. The two outscored the entire UP starting unit but were just a pair of spokes in Ateneo’s wheel.
A lot of players pitched in here and there, with Anton Asistio, Tyler Tio and Jolo Mendoza hitting timely outside bombs that parried every Maroons uprising—which came in waves during the game.
But with Paul Desiderio and Bright Akhuetie held down from their usual scoring output, UP did not have enough fuel to charge through the later quarters. Desiderio was limited to five points the entire game—just days after scoring the last five points that booted out the Falcons.
Akhuetie survived quite a scare after hyper-extending his knee in the third period. He was stretchered out of the court four minutes into the third quarter but returned in the pay-off period in a last-ditch effort to fire up the Maroons. He also finished with five points.
“If there’s one takeaway here, it’s that it’s possible to beat Ateneo,” UP coach Bo Perasol said.
“Before the series, everything was like ‘You have no match against them. You have no experience going to the Finals.’ But the boys showed that with a little tweak in defense and a little more rest, they can give Ateneo [a run for] their money,” he added.
The two teams square off again on Wednesday.
UP will have to address several concerns, including the seemingly demoralizing way Ravena, Nieto and the Eagles took a strong punch from the Maroons and still emerged victorious.
And then there is Akhuetie’s knee situation, which seems rosy for now.
“Wala naman daw (There is no) serious injury,” the UP mentor said of his import. “He just needs therapy for a couple of days.”