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For Nieto twins, Ateneo's historic title run is a family affair

Matt and Mike Nieto were the cornerstones of a Ateneo program that just completed a historic 16-game sweep. KC Cruz/ESPN5

Seventeen years ago, brothers Mike and Matt Nieto watched Ateneo win its third UAAP title in school history with their father Jet.

As the twins saw the Blue Eagles dethrone the DLSU Green Archers in 2002, they envisioned that they would one day don the blue and white.

"We'll win also for Ateneo," they both told their father, who won two titles for Ateneo himself in 1987 and 1988.

The idea of winning for their father's alma mater stuck with Mike and Matt in the years that followed. The two of them eventually won titles in grade school and high school, and culminated their 16-year basketball journey with a three-peat in the UAAP Men's Basketball Tournament on Wednesday for Ateneo. The cherry on top was remaining unbeaten through 16 games in Season 82, their final year.

The graduating stars, now 22, had multiple goals fulfilled when the buzzer sounded on their last game. The first mission was close to home as they wanted to have one more championship than their father.

"It's super sweet and amazing," Matt said after Ateneo's title-clinching victory. "You know, achieving your goal, there's no better feeling in the world for me and Mike, and our goal as a family was to beat what dad had."

"This is the 16th year of their playing career in Ateneo and it's the 16th win so it's truly, super special," Jett said.

Their other aspiration was a shot at being the only team to win 16 consecutive games en route to a title.

"Of course, our inside goal between Mike and myself, that we didn't tell anyone was to go 16-0," Matt said. "There's no better feeling than to leave Ateneo as a champion. That what's you'll be known for -- not as an individual but as a team that achieved a 3-peat and made history."

The pair have been the cornerstone of the Blue Eagles' dynasty as well as the focal point of their historic season sweep.

As the Blue Eagles' lead guard, Matt was known as a fearless competitor and court general. He had a penchant for making the right play in critical situations.

"You can just put a 'W' on his head. He's a winner. He wins all the time," Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said of his point guard. "And losing hurts him more than anybody else and he takes it personally and he carries it onto the next event so he doesn't lose that one."

Mike emerged as an unequivocal leader for a championship team. He worked behind the scenes, motivating and listening to his teammates whenever they needed guidance. His rise to team captain had its twists and turns especially since he had to reshape his game in the collegiate ranks.

In high school, Mike played center and power forward, bullying opponents in the paint on his way to MVP honors his senior year. After graduation, he knew he had to change his skill set since he would become an undersized big man in college. So he cut weight and learned how to play the wing and even the guard position.

Though he became a reliable playmaker in the seniors division, Mike's biggest asset was his leadership on and off the court. Baldwin talked at length about all his graduating players -- Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Adrian Wong, and the Nieto twins -- in the postgame news conference but Mike probably earned the most praise.

"Look at all of us up here and think about where we're gonna be 10 or 15 years, you'll forget most of us but you won't forget Mike Nieto," said Baldwin. "... In terms of touching people, making lives better, giving of himself, and making sure that everybody around him has a better chance than what he has, that's our captain."

The twins also showered their coach with accolades.

"He wanted us to become good players here in college, but looking forward, he wanted us to become better professional players," said Mike. "And for us, that's what he did. His goal wasn't to become champions if you ask him. His goal is for us to be drafted in the top ten [of the PBA draft]"

Now that the sun has set on their collegiate careers, the twins can look back on the goals they've achieved. They are hoping that they've encouraged others to dream big just as they did all those years ago.

"We want kids to be inspired just like how we were, that this 2019 team that made history will be their goal." Matt said. "... We want them to be like us through their hard work, their sacrifices. We want them to have an influence on kids not just to the Ateneo community but to all the teams that will be watching."