Ateneo used a monster second half start before relying on its championship composure in the endgame to upend University of Santo Tomas, 83-78, in Game One of the UAAP Season 75 finals Saturday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
The Blue Eagles opened the third quarter with a 17-0 run that turned a 38-31 halftime deficit into a 48-38 lead. The Growling Tigers came back to briefly retake the lead in the fourth, but several Ateneo players, including Kiefer Ravena who scored with 8.8 seconds to clinch the game, made crucial baskets late as the Blue Eagles took an early lead in their best-of-three championship series.
Nico Salva scored a career-high 30 points to lead the Blue Eagles, which moved a win away from winning its fifth straight title, while Ravena added 13.
Juami Tiongson and Ryan Buenafe, who combined to score all 10 points in a 10-2 run for Ateneo late, scored 12 and 10 points respectively.
“I just talked to the players at halftime to be aggressive,” said Ateneo coach Norman Black. “(UST’s) not really a shotblocking team. Abdul averages about one shotblock a game. Other than him, nobody really blocks shots there so we should be vey aggressive going to the rim and we should not settle for perimeter shots.”
UST overcame a big start from Salva, who scored 11 points in the opening period, to lead by as much as 11, 36-25, in the first half. The Tigers entered the halftime break with a seven-point advantage, 38-31.
The Blue Eagles came out with guns blazing after the intermission, scoring 17 straight points while holding their opponents scoreless for the first six minutes and eight seconds of the period. All five of the Ateneo players that started the period — Salva, Ravena, Tiongson, Buenafe and Greg Slaughter — scored in the huge run.
Kevin Ferrer finally snapped the drought for UST with a strong drive down the middle, but Salva responded with a three-pointer that gave Ateneo an 11-point lead, 51-40, with 3:13 left in the period. Ferrer and Teng tried to shoot the Tigers back into the game, but free throws from Ravena and Nico Elorde kept the Blue Eagles in the driver’s seat, 61-51, at the end of three quarters.
Aljon Mariano then caught fire in the fourth, scoring nine points in a 13-2 run for UST that culminated in a breakaway dunk for Abdul that gave the Growling Tigers back the lead at 64-63. But Salva came to the rescue once again, knocking down a baseline jumper to snap the run.
UST challenged again at the 3:51 mark with free throws from Ferrer and a layup from Teng in transition brought them to within one, 71-70. But Buenafe scored two points after a goaltending call on Abdul and followed it with a crucial four-point play from the corner to put some separation between the teams, 77-70, with 3:04 remaining.
Mariano scored again for the Tigers, but Tiongson hit a pair of baskets to cap a 10-2 run and put Ateneo up by nine, 81-72, with 1:09 remaining.
But UST wasn’t done, as Teng banked in a three-pointer with 1:05 remaining. After Buenafe airballed his own attempt on the other end, Teng hit another to cut the Ateneo lead down to just three.
Ravena, however, dribbled down the clock before hitting a dagger with eight seconds left to seal the game for the Blue Eagles.
Teng scored a team-high 25 points for UST while Mariano added 22 points and 11 rebounds.
“I just want to win so I gave it my all. I told myself before the game that I’ll do everything I can for us to win,” said Salva, who became just the third player in Ateneo history to score at least 30 points in a UAAP finals game after LA Tenorio and Rabeh Al-Hussaini.
“It also helps that I have teammates like Ryan, Kiefer and Greg (Slaughter) so they don’t only focus on me, they have to pay attention to them. So that opens the lane for me as well.”
Slaughter continued to struggle offensively, though, scoring just five points but finishing with 12 rebounds and one block for Ateneo. He scored just four points in their final four game against La Salle.
Ateneo (83) – Salva 30, Ravena 13, Tiongson 12, Buenafe 10, Chua 9, Slaughter 5, Gonzaga 2, Elorde 2, Sumalinog 0, Golla 0.
UST (78) – Teng 25, Mariano 22, Ferrer 13, Abdul 9, Fortuna 4, Lo 3, Pe 2, Bautista 0.
Quarters: 18-24, 31-38, 61-51, 83-78.