ATENEO de Manila University had to sweat to complete the sweep of the first round of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 80 men’s basketball tournament.
The Blue Eagles needed a crucial defensive stop and two clutch free throws from Matt Nieto in the dying seconds to upstage their bitter rivals De La Salle University on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Leading 75-74, the Green Archers were one inbound away from completing a comeback but Kib Montalbo threw a difficult lob pass to Andrei Caracut near center court that was tapped by Nieto to give Ateneo the possession with 9.1 ticks left.
Nieto completed his heroics after sinking two pressure-packed free throws off Montalbo’s foul to put the Blue Eagles ahead, 76-75, with 3.9 seconds left.
La Salle had two chances to steal the game but Ben Mbala forced his shot and a follow-up by Montalbo after grabbing the loose ball was short, as the Ateneo crowd erupted in jubilation.
“It was a (typical) Ateneo-La Salle game. Both teams played hard and we thought La Salle wanted it more but our defense in the last seconds helped us to grind this out,” said Blue Eagles head coach Sandy Arespacochaga.
“We are happy we came up with the win. It was really a tough game,” he added.
Nieto led Ateneo with 16 points while Anton Asistio and Jolo Mendoza added 14 and 10 markers respectively for the Blue Eagles, who last made a first-round sweep in Season 74 where they won their fourth title in the five-peat under Norman Black.
Ateneo’s defense held Mbala to his lowest output of the season at 18. The reigning Most Valuable Player was 8-of-18 from the field and was hobbled by foul trouble.
Ricci Rivero paced the Green Archers with 19 markers while Jolo Go chipped in 11, including a triple, to end La Salle’s amazing 5-0 windup started by Mbala’s one-hand follow-up slam to cut the Blue Eagles’ lead to one, 63-64.
With Asistio unloading three triples, the Blue Eagles dictated the tempo early and erected a 28-16 lead after the first period before settling for a 43-36 spread going into the break.
Rivero, Mbala and Go put La Salle within striking distance in the third canto and Abu Tratter’s tip in off Montalbo’s miss gave the Green Archers their first taste of the lead in the second half, 73-71, with 3:14 remaining.
They were still ahead at 75-74 after Mbala’s two free throws and forced a 24-second violation on Ateneo, which gave the Taft-based team a chance to deny the Katipunan squad a sweep.
But the veteran Montalbo threw a risky inbound pass, La Salle’s 20th turnover of the game, and Nieto calmly sank both free throws to peg the final score.
ATENEO 76 – Nieto Ma 16, Asistio 14, Mendoza 10, Ravena 9, Verano 6, Go 4, Tolentino 4, Nieto Mi 4, Black 4, Mamuyac 3, Ikeh 2
DLSU 75 – Rivero R 19, Mbala 18, Go 11, Rivero P 8, Caracut 5, Paraiso 5, Tratter 4, Montalbo 3, Santillian 2, Gonzales 0
QUARTER SCORES: 28-16, 43-36, 63-62, 76-75