Isaac Go is turning out to be Ateneo de Manila University’s “Mr. Clutch.”
The six-foot-seven center once again completed a crucial play in the closing seconds to lift the Blue Eagles to a tension-filled 76-70 victory over defending champion De La Salle University in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals of the University Athletic Association (UAAP) Season 80 men’s basketball tournament on Saturday at the jam-packed Mall of Asia Arena.
Go, the main reason why the top seed Ateneo was in the finals, received a bounced pass from Thirdy Ravena for a three-point play off Kib Montalbo that turned out to be the final score with 10.4 seconds remaining.
The Green Archers never had a decent response from a timeout and saw their eight-game winning streak snapped to fall behind in the best-of-three championship series.
And they need to wake up Ben Mbala, who was held down to career-low eight points, in the next game to extend their reign.
“Team effort. We couldn’t play Mbala straight up so we needed all five guys to do their roles in order to slow down Ben,” said Blue Eagles chief assistant Sandy Arespacochaga, who had six players scoring at least seven in the game.
“And coming from a (hard) game last Wednesday, credit the players. We couldn’t do it if we are not mentally ready. It’s mostly mental,” he added.
Ateneo had to bring down the pesky Far Eastern University in their winner-take-all match in overtime, 88-84, to face La Salle once more in the finals and the Blue Eagles never missed a beat in Game 1.
Mike Nieto, who poured all of his 11 points in the second half, gave Ateneo the needed cushion in the fourth quarter, scoring in various ways to put the Loyola-based team ahead, 69-59 with 6:33 remaining in the game.
La Salle, behind Aljun Melecio, responded with an 9-0 swing to move within one, 68-69, 3:38 left, but that was closest the Taft-based team could get.
Raffy Verano stopped the bleeding for the Blue Eagles with a difficult lay-up and Ravena added the lead with a putback off Anton Asistio’s missed three-point attempt that sandwiched Melecio’s jumper for a 73-70 lead, 2:12 remaining.
The Green Archers came up empty for a game-tying triple and Go, who hit a big triple against Far Eastern University in their knockout Final Four match last Wednesday, made his biggest contribution of the match with a thee-point play to seal the victory and a 1-0 series lead.
Ravena led Ateneo with 12 points while Matt Nieto added 11 markers plus a bloodied forehead courtesy of the inadvertent elbow from Mbala. That sequence motivated his twin brother in the game.
“When I saw my brother down with blood on his face, I threw the towel because I don’t want to see him hurting. And the best way to retaliate against La Salle is not through physical play but to win the game for the team,” said Mike Nieto.
But aside from Mike Nieto’s inspired plays and Ateneo’s solid defense on Mbala, the Blue Eagles still needed the clutch basket from Go, who was also a non factor in Game 1 due to foul trouble until that three-point play in the dying seconds.
“Everybody stepped up. I guessed it showed we’re not looking on who will score. We all look to score for Ateneo,” said Go, who played just 15 minutes.
Melecio was the lone bright spot for the Green Archers with a game-high 24 points highlighted by five triples.
Riccie Rivero was the only other La Salle player in double figures in scoring with 10 as Mbala, the reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP) who will soon receive his second MVP award in Game 2, struggled big time in Game 1.
In 31 minutes, Mbala had only eight points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field. He hauled down 12 rebounds.
ATENEO 76 – Ravena 12, Nieto Ma 11, Nieto Mi 11, Asistio 10, Tolentino 9, Black 7, Verano 5, Go 5, Ikeh 4, Tio 2, Mamuyac 0, Mendoza 0, Porter 0
DLSU 70 – Melecio 24, Rivero R 10, Mbala 8, Tratter 7, Santillan 7, Rivero P 7, Baltazar 4, Montalbo 3, Caracut 0, Go 0, Tero 0, Paraiso 0
QUARTER SCORES: 26-14, 43-39, 60-58, 76-70