The championship pedigree of the Ateneo Blue Eagles was on full display in Game 1 of the UAAP finals against the UP Fighting Maroons.
It was nip and tuck for the first three quarters before Ateneo flaunted its experience and poise in the fourth quarter. And at the forefront of the Blue Eagles' rally in the crucial stages was their lead guard Matt Nieto.
The fourth-year star erupted for a personal-best 27 points, 19 in the second half, but it was his clutch baskets and key defensive plays that fueled Ateneo to an 88-79 victory. The leadership and maturity of the veteran guard were showcased in the game's most critical stage. In front of the 21,606 people inside the Mall of Asia Arena, Nieto and the rest of the Blue Eagles did not shy away from the big moments primarily because they leaned on a previous experience playing inside a hostile environment.
"When we entered MOA and saw our surroundings, I told the team, 'Didn't we already experience this before?'" he shared.
Nieto was referring to the 2018 William Jones Cup last July where Ateneo represented the Philippines in the annual tournament in Taiwan. The Blue Eagles came in as the only collegiate team and were pitted against older and stronger foes. Against the hosts Chinese-Taipei, Nieto hit the game-winning triple in front of a raucous home crowd inside the Xinzhuang Gymnasium. That game, that moment, and that experience prepared Nieto for the magnitude of this year's UAAP finals.
"I told them we were overpowered by the Taiwanese when we met up against them. So this is nothing new for us," Nieto said.
Nieto had to lean on that unique Jones Cup experience because the predominantly UP crowd inside the arena was a new and different challenge. After facing the De La Salle Green Archers in two straight finals, Ateneo was faced with a school who hasn't been in the finals for the last 32 years. The UP faithful was animated and engaged on every single play.
"Their crowd is much different from an Ateneo-La Salle. Their crowd is bigger, they are noisier and rowdier," he pointed out. "Our crowd is the same from an Ateneo-La Salle, they don't lose hope. But UP is really intense and they really want to win."
It was a mere two-point game at the start of the final frame but Nieto was one of the primary reasons that Ateneo pulled away. He hit a back-breaking 3-pointer to give his team an 87-73 lead with roughly two minutes left and nabbed a crucial steal a minute later, snuffing the hopes of the Fighting Maroons.
"I credit coach Tab and my teammates for trusting me in that situation," he said about his late game heroics. "I just want to win. I'm a competitive person and I don't want to lose to any team. I want to give my championship to my senior Anton (Asistio) because we've been dreaming about this since high school. I don't want him to lose in his senior year. This is really for him."
After a brilliant and fearless Game 1 performance, Nieto and the Eagles will shoot for an encore on Wednesday and win their second straight UAAP title.