Even with its offense far from the juggernaut that has marked its dominance in the last two seasons, Ateneo showed it had more than enough weapons to fend off a La Salle team that unveiled a retooled squad bent on toppling the two-time defending champion Eagles.
In their first rivalry game in UAAP Season 82, the Blue Eagles leaned on brothers Mike and Matt Nieto and third-year guard Gian Mamuyac as they gutted out an 81-69 drubbing of the Green Archers on Sunday night to gain a share of the men’s basketball tournament lead at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Nieto siblings combined for 33 points, while Mamuyac knocked in eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter as the Eagles went on a second quarter tear before surviving a late uprising by the Archers, who cut a 22-point lead to eight points twice down the stretch.
“This was a difficult game just because we didn’t know what to expect from La Salle,” said coach Tab Baldwin. “Our offensive execution isn’t like it used to be and that’s a reflection on me and that needs to be fixed.
“But we were tough and aggressive on defense and we covered a lot of our mistakes with our effort.”
In the first game, Far Eastern picked up its first win at the expense of a shorthanded University of the East, 81-65, with sophomore LJ Gonzales coming up with his best game yet with 14 points and eight assists.
It was a strong response by the Tamaraws following their loss to the University of the Philippines as they pounced on the Red Warriors, whose already thin rotation suffered a blow when Harvey Pagsanjan went down injured.
UE center Alex Diakhite played through an illness and finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
With no blue-chip recruit to parade this season, Tamaraws coach Olsen Racela said they would have to win games the hard way each time.
“All the teams are stacked, and we’re one of the teams who, instead of acquiring talent, lost players due to graduation,” said Racela in Filipino.
“We don’t have the skill so we have to make up for it with hard work.”
The Eagles made just 32 percent of their shots with Ivorian center Ange Kouame and star forward Thirdy Ravena typifying their struggles with a combined 5-of-23 clip from the field.
A thunderous dunk by former Portland State U player Jamie Malonzo over Ravena early in the first period looked to have pumped up the Archers and the green-clad gallery, but Ateneo seized control by using a 21-1 run to end the first half.
“It’s difficult because we just didn’t know much about La Salle’s team with so many new players,” said Baldwin. “But I also think they’re still learning about themselves.”
Aside from Malonzo, La Salle paraded Kurt Lojera and Tyrus Hill from Adamson, Jordan Bartlett from National U, rookie Joel Cagulangan and Keys Meeker and James Pado, who both have US NCAA experience.
Mike Nieto opened the fourth period with a tough turnaround jumper and scored in transition to widen the lead, 70-52, with 9:02 remaining.
But the Archers refused to waver with Andrei Caracut and Joaqui Manuel joining forces to push La Salle to within 69-77, with 1:23 left.
“I was just taking shots that the system of our offense was giving me,” said Mamuyac.
Mike Nieto said their win was a testament to the depth of the Eagles.
“The culture of our team is always ‘next man up,”’ said Mike Nieto.
FAR EASTERN 81—Comboy 24, Gonzales 14, Tchuente 9, Ebona 7, Cani 7, Torres 6, Tuffin 5, Bienes 5, Stockton 2, Alforque 2, Celzo 0, Bayquin 0.
UE 65—Diakhite 21, Suerte 17, Abanto 8, Manalang 8, Mendoza 4, Sawat 3, Pagsanjan 2, Apacible 2, Cruz 0, Tolentino 0, Camacho 0, Beltran 0, Antiporda 0.
Quarters: 17-10, 34-25, 58-51, 81-65.
ATENEO 81—Mi. Nieto 18, Ma. Nieto 15, Mamuyac 14, Navarro 8, Andrade 6, Kouame 6, Ravena 6, Tio 4, Belangel 2, Go 2, Daves 0, Maagdenberg 0.
LA SALLE 69—Malonzo 18, Caracut 14, Baltazar 10, Serrano 8, Melecio 7, Lojera 6, Manuel 6, Bartlett 0, Bates 0, Cagulangan 0, Cu 0, Hill 0, Meeker 0, Pado 0.
Quarters: 23-21, 51-29, 66-50, 81-69.
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