They stumbled at first, but the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles took a giant step towards an outright Finals berth after outclassing the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, 96-82, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Ateneo’s usually stingy defense gave way to a barrage of UP triples and long jumpers. Even with a hand in the face, the Maroons’ perimeter shooters converted eight shots from rainbow distance, with usual suspect Paul Desiderio drilling three.
UP, however, could not break away, as the long jumpers they failed to convert turned into long rebounds for Ateneo, which they used to fuel their attack in transition. Still, the Maroons negotiated a 48-42 lead at the half thanks to late solid defensive possessions.
The third quarter was blur of runs. With each UP flurry, Ateneo had a correspending defensive salvo. The Blue Eagles, however, laughed last, establishing a defensive stand that brought them within one, 63-64, heading into the final period.
The league leaders seemed to be in the midst of a fourth quarter rally that has become their signature this season. UP began missing the jumpers that staved off Ateneo in the first half. Their starting big man, Ibrahim Outtara, then fouled out with 6:19 still remaining in the game. UP’s mad scramble became fertile ground for a 12-0 Ateneo run to blossom and gave the Blue Eagles a 79-68 cushion.
From focusing on the perimeter, the Maroons threatened to take the lead back through gritty work in the key. UP forward Noah Webb’s frantic energy rubbed off on his team, as the Maroons turned on their defense to get stops and coax Ateneo into ill-advised fouls. The Maroons rallied back thanks to a run powered by six charities that tied the game at 79 with 4:11 remaining.
In the end, it was UP’s signature lack of composure that shaped the outcome. Immediately after they tied the game, the Maroons surrendered a foolish foul, as Jun Manzo recklessly pounced on a sitting Matt Nieto, who drained the ensuing free throws. Manzo’s reckless play seemingly echoed in the following UP possessions, which were a pile of heavily-defended dives to the basket and turnovers.
UP wound up scoring just three points — all off free throws — in the last four minutes. Ateneo’s clockwork offense, on the other hand, produced 14 points.
“I guess our players really just settled down and listened to the coaches at the half. They (players) knew that they weren’t making the best decisions to start the game,” mused Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.
“UP played really well. They forced us into shots that we didn’t want to take. We knew we had to trim those down in the end game and really just execute and stay composed when they made runs,” added rookie Gian Mamuyac, whose 13 points was merely a footnote to his stellar defense.
Matt Nieto, who was calm as a monk in the fourth quarter, led the Blue Eagles with 19 points and four rebounds. Big man Isaac Go scored 12 of his 13 points in a short burst early inthe payoff period.
Ateneo, after allowing UP to shoot 54 percent from the field in the first half, stifled the Maroons to 29 percent shooting in the second half.
Ateneo look to sweep the elimination round on Sunday, November 12. Standing in the way of perfection, however, are the defending champions De La Salle University Green Archers. UP, on the other hand, face a must-win situation when they take on the National University Bulldogs on Saturday, November 11.
ADMU 96 – Nieto Ma 19, Go 13, Mamuyac 13, Ravena 10, Tolentino 10, Nieto Mi 9, Verano 8, Ikeh 6, Asistio 4, Mendoza 4, Tio 0, Black 0.
UP 82 – Gomez de Liano Ju 21, Desiderio 16, Manzo 13, Dario 8, Gomez de Liano Ja 7, Lim 4, Ouattara 3, Jaboneta 3, Webb 2, Romero 2, Lao 2, Prado 1, Vito 0, Ricafort 0, Harris 0
Quarterscores: 22-23, 42-48, 63-64, 96-82