By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
AFTER five years, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are back on top of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball after dethroning rivals De La Salle Green Archers with an 88-86 victory in Game Three of their best-of-three finals yesterday at the packed Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Playing collective ball throughout the match, the Eagles soared and survived the “arrows” of the Archers to claim the championship for Season 80, two games to one.
Ateneo got off to a strong start, boosted by tight defense that had the La Salle offense stymied.
The Eagles raced to a 15-6 lead halfway into the first quarter before the Archers made a mini 6-1 run to come within four points, 16-12, with three minutes remaining.
But Ateneo would not let go of its grip on the control, holding a 24-14 advantage at the of the canto.
La Salle, led by league most valuable player Ben Mbala, opened the second frame with an 11-1 blitz to tie the count at 25-all at the six-minute mark.
Anton Asistio gave back the lead to the Eagles, 28-25, with a three-pointer after only to be answered by Ricci Rivero with an and-one to level the score anew at 28-all.
The two teams went back and forth the rest of the way with the Eagles eventually settling for a 45-38 spread by the halftime break.
Felt they lost some momentum, La Salle began the third frame with a 13-5 run, behind Santi Santillan and Aljun Melecio, to seize the lead 51-50 midway into the quarter.
But triples by Matt Nieto, Raffy Verano and Gian Mamuyac would keep the Eagles afloat, 59-56, with four minutes left on the clock.
Back-to-back baskets by Rivero and Abu Tratter handed La Salle a three-point cushion, 62-59, at the 2:30 mark.
Ateneo though would show much resilience the rest of the way, outgunning La Salle, 7-4, to tie the score at 66-all heading into the payoff quarter.
The outcome still wide open, the two teams jostled for control to begin the fourth.
Mbala and Vince Tolentino exchanged baskets to start off proceedings.
Triples from Nieto and Asistio gave the Eagles a 74-68 lead with 6:37 to go on the clock, forcing La Salle to seize for time.
Ateneo continued to maintain control, holding a 10-point lead, 80-70, with four minutes remaining.
Melecio hit a triple to slice their deficit to just seven, 80-73, with under three minutes left.
Chibueze Ikeh made it a nine-point cushion, 82-73, after, scoring on a slam off a feed from Asistio.
Four points in a row from Mbala pushed La Salle to within five, 82-77, at the 1:24 mark.
Guard Andrei Caracut further pulled the Archers closer, 82-80, draining a three-pointer with 49 seconds left to play.
Off a timeout, Ateneo called Isaac Go’s number and the big man delivered anew for the Eagles, hitting a triple with 24 seconds remaining to douse cold water on the La Salle run and extend their lead to five, 85-80.
The Archers tried to work their way back but no meltdown would come forth from the Eagles as the latter hung on tight to bring the championship back to Katipunan.
Thirdy Ravena led the Eagles with 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He was later named finals MVP.
Nieto finished with 14 points while Ikeh had a double-double of 12 points and 13 boards, and Asistio 11 points.
Mbala paced La Salle with 19 points, 14 boards and three blocks.
Melecio had 16 while Rivero, Caracut and Santillan had, 14, 13 and 11 points, respectively.
“This is very surreal. The Ateneo community was simply amazing with its support and this is for them,” said Ravena after their win, which was witnessed by 22,012 people live at the Big Dome.
“I’m proud of this team, each one of the players. We are a team and each has a role to play and they did exactly that in today’s game. I’m happy for the community,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, for his part, said.
The championship was the ninth for Ateneo, joining La Salle for fourth most in the UAAP.