The UAAP Finals goes by really quickly.
Just five days ago, fans were rejoicing about the Battle of Katipunan Finals having been set thanks to a thrilling UP win versus Adamson. The idea was, It felt like no one could lose. This was a clash between neighbors, two schools who have had great relations with each other throughout the years. This is a welcome sight compared to the fiery Ateneo-La Salle clashes we’d gotten used to over the last two seasons.
Fast forward to Saturday, and everything we thought was squashed. While it remains true these two schools have respect for each other, Ateneo and UP are also two institutions with students that are witty, competitive, and let’s face it, cocky. Trash talking was at an ALL TIME HIGH, especially after the final buzzer sounded. You’d think it’d peaceful the moment players went out of the playing court, but that was far from the case. This was war, and we had to welcome it as such.
And today is Tuesday. Admittedly, the tension between both sides has cooled down, largely because of the gap in between Games 1 and 2, as well as Gilas facing its own issues after losing versus Iran. As I said, the UAAP Finals goes by really quickly. It’s easy to miss out on important details, and understandably so. But if there’s something that shouldn’t be missed at all as we approach Game 2, let it be this: the Matt Nieto-Jun Manzo duel that’s happening in the backcourt.
It’s easy to forget about both players, and not just because of all the madness that’s been occurring outside of the court. As it is, they aren’t even considered among the top two best players in their team. Thirdy Ravena and Ange Kouame take the cake for the Blue Eagles, while Juan Gomez de Liano, Bright Akhuetie and Paul Desiderio are the big three of the Fighting Maroons. However, don’t mistake being the best for being the most important. In a series as intense as this, both lead guards may just be the difference from either a championship or a runner-up finish for their respective schools.
Game 1 between Ateneo and UP was a story of two halves. Despite the Blue Eagles leading 39-38 after the first 20 minutes of play, momentum sided with the Fighting Maroons. With Desiderio and Gomez de Liano shackled by the stingy perimeter defense of Ateneo, it was Manzo who stepped up to the plate for UP.
Despite the Blue Eagles jumping out to an early 17-7 lead led by Thirdy Ravena, UP didn’t flinch. A large part of this; they knew it was only Thirdy who was producing at that time. He had 11 of the 17 points of Ateneo, plus three assists. One player could only do so much. Eventually, Ateneo’s shot wouldn’t fall their way anymore. The Fighting Maroons just needed to be patient by continuing to play disciplined defense.
It paid off, as not only did Thirdy start to cool down, but the rest of the Blue Eagles continued to miss shots. The Fighting Maroons are among the top teams in the league in terms of fastbreak points for good reason. They get their points by rebounding the basketball, then proceeding to run and take advantage of the open floor. It all starts with an attack. There was no better player to start that burst than Jun Manzo.
He was relentless in attacking the Ateneo defense, and slowly but surely, it paid off for the Fighting Maroons. They had cut down the Ateneo lead by just eight points after the first quarter, with momentum slowly shifting toward their side.
This UP team knew who they were as a basketball team. They played best with a fast pace, using that speed to fuel their offense, and in the process, opening up opportunities for everyone else. They were starting to get looks inside. The Fighting Maroons just needed to keep it going so more opportunities would open up for them. Stick to their pace, and they’d have a shot.
Come the second quarter, UP continued to run the floor. Granted, it did look messy at times, but as evidenced by their series versus the Soaring Falcons, they were fine playing with a little dirt. The Blue Eagles had difficulty finding a counter against the pesky small-ball lineup of the Fighting Maroons. Even Thirdy at the four couldn’t work for Ateneo. All they were doing was to fall into how Coach Bo Perasol wanted his team to play.
Granted, it’s not like the Blue Eagles couldn’t battle out of the avalanche the Fighting Maroons were creating. That’s how talented Ateneo is; even when playing out of their comfort zone, they can still stick close and not allow teams to blow them out. But UP would take it. Just to stick close to these Blue Eagles was already a feat in itself. Continue to do that, and they’d have a shot. It was lit by Manzo’s attacking, and it was only fitting the half ended with a microcosm of how UP wanted to play.
Push the pace, and they’d have a shot. Any shot. Open shot. It would be there.
The Blue Eagles led, but by no means did it feel comfortable. The minutes they played with Thirdy on the bench hurt them, and the rest of the team struggled to keep up with the pace. It wasn’t necessarily disaster, but Ateneo fans couldn’t help but wince at what was happening. Ateneo was playing at UP’s pace, fast and furious. They needed to settle themselves down and go back to their identity as a basketball team. They demolished teams by breaking down defenses into little bits and pieces before throwing a perfectly-timed knockout punch. Most importantly, they played as a team. The Blue Eagles needed to go beyond Thirdy Ravena.
If Jun Manzo jump-started things for the Fighting Maroons by attacking with reckless abandon, Matt Nieto revved things up by staying steady. It’s not one singular action, but if you needed a moment for when that happened, let it be this:
It was a simple drive and kick play coming off an initiating Thirdy Ravena, while Matt Nieto calmly caught the ball in the left corner. Matt’s shot hadn’t been falling at a good rate all season long, yet his composure never wavered. The same held true in that moment. He stayed ready, on his toes, knees bent for whatever attack may come, and once he got the ball, he simply let it fly. Simple. No-frills. That’s exactly how Matt Nieto plays.
It continued to pour on, one basket after another courtesy of Matt. It wasn’t just Matt doing all of this, however. By encouraging that steadiness we’d grown accustomed to from the Blue Eagles, the rest of his teammates followed. The entire team started to work within their offense. Granted, UP continued to fight, rallying around Bright Akhuetie who had to be stretchered out due to a hyper-extended knee during the third quarter, but the Blue Eagles just stayed their course. Relax. Keep it cool. That knockout punch will come, and we’ll deliver it once the opportunity presents itself.
It came with around three minutes remaining, with the Blue Eagles holding on to a double-digit lead against the Fighting Maroons. All of a sudden, everything felt inevitable.
Here we are again. Ateneo with their classic mini-run to end the game, to inflate the score to even greater heights.
You could view it like that, but this wasn’t for the sake of mere showing off. It was knockout punch time. It was a good fight, Jun and UP. 19 points on good three-point shooting and amazing fearlessness deserve plenty of credit. But Matt, and the rest of the Blue Eagles weren’t having any of it. They came to win, and they were hell bent on doing it in the most effective way possible.
Pressure Matt, doesn’t work. He shakes off Juan Gomez de Liano, Bright Akhuetie is left in skates, and he calmly puts up a midrange jumper.
Money. Add another three a few seconds later for good measure. Suddenly, it read; Matt Nieto, 27 points. It didn’t feel like 27 points with how slow the production came from Nieto. Consider that a testament to not only the egalitarian offense of Coach Tab but the discipline and patience of Matt. He let the opportunities come, and it paid off. Step by step, taking it steady.
Ultimately, the Blue Eagles took Game 1 from the Fighting Maroons, moving a game away from notching their second straight championship. The trash talk will flow once more as we slowly approach game time on Wednesday. But in the middle of the banter ongoing in social media, don’t forget the actual product being played inside the basketball court. It’s a clash between two great teams, led by their elite lead guards trying to shift the pace of the game to their advantage. It’s a duel for the ages, one that not only deserves more credit but is also needed in a UAAP Finals this fiery.