The Ateneo Blue Eagles inched closer to defending the crown after taking an 88-79 victory over the UP Fighting Maroons in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 81 finals Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Matt Nieto exploded for a career-high 27 points to go with three steals. Thirdy Ravena flirted with a triple-double of 21 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, while also getting two steals and two blocks. Angelo Kouame was limited to seven points but he effectively manned the glass with 12 boards.
The Fighting Maroons were just down by three midway through the fourth quarter but the Blue Eagles pulled away with a 12-1 run capped by a booming triple from Nieto that made it 87-73 with two minutes left to play.
Juan Gomez de Liaño and Bright Akhuetie tried to keep UP in the game by attacking aggressively and drawing fouls but Ateneo built a huge enough cushion down the stretch to come away with the win.
Throughout the contest, however, the Fighting Maroons showed that they are capable of keeping in pace with the defending champions. They repeatedly climbed back every time the Blue Eagles attempted to break away.
"No question, I think that UP deserves to be in the Finals," said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga. "Actually we said whoever will win that series [between UP and Adamson] will be a good match-up for us, and we've got to make sure that we play a good offensive and defensive game in order for us to win."
Jun Manzo led the charge for UP with 19 points, four rebounds, and three steals. Juan Gomez de Liaño added 17 points and eight rebounds but he struggled with a 5-for-14 shooting from the field and six turnovers.
Ateneo (88) - Nieto Ma. 27, Ravena 21, Kouame 7, Verano 6, Tio 6, Mamuyac 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
- Bright Akhuetie was stretchered out of the court after hurting his left leg, but he checked back into the game at the 7:01 mark of the fourth frame.
- Matt Nieto scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half. He sparked Ateneo's huge closing run with crucial baskets and steals.
- The Fighting Maroons had a slight edge in three-point shooting (13-for-28), with Jun Manzo, Diego Dario, and Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño chipping in with three triples apiece. The Blue Egles went 11-for-27 led by Matt Nieto's four treys.
Finals Game 2 on Wednesday, December 5, at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum