The UP Fighting Maroons kept it close for most of Game 1 of Season 81, UAAP Men’s Basketball Finals, but eventually fell to the defending champions, the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 79-88, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Inspired by spirited play from their bench, specifically from Season 80 Rookie of the Year Juan Gomez de Liaño and Diego Dario, the Maroons wiped out a 12-point Ateneo lead to trail by only one at halftime, 38-39. The team was also buoyed up by streaky shooting from guard Jun Manzo, who registered a team-high 19 points on 8 of 11, shooting from the field.
These heroics, however, were not enough for the Maroons to survive a clutch performance from Ateneo’s Matt Nieto, who scorched the Maroons with 27 points, including four 3 pointers. A steal by Nieto on Manzo, with under 50 seconds remaining in regulation, all but sealed the victory for the Blue Eagles. Ateneo ace Thirdy Ravena capped the victory with a near-triple double, registering 21 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists for the defending champions.
It was nearly a more heartbreaking outing for the Maroons, as Season 81 MVP Bright Akhuetie exited the game with an apparent knee injury, with more than 6 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, after a physical battle for position with Ateneo’s Ange Kouame. Akhuetie would return to the bench with ice on his knee in the 4th quarter, eventually checking back into the game with 7:04 remaining.
Fresh from his clutch performance against the Adamson Soaring Falcons, UP stalwart Paul Desiderio struggled to put his imprint on the game, finishing with 5 points and 5 fouls. While compensating with his rebounding and facilitation for the Maroons, Desiderio’s foul on Raffy Verano inside the game’s final minute would be his evening’s last – a final blow punctuating a difficult final five minutes for the team, which struggled to mount a significant offense within that span.
The Fighting Maroons, who are returning to the Men’s Basketball Finals for the first time in 32 years, have their backs against the wall, and must win Game 2 to keep their championship hopes alive. Game 2 will be on Wednesday, December 5, 2018 at 3:30 PM. (Andre DP. Encarnacion, UP MPRO)