MATT Nieto made a crucial defensive stop, leading to two free throws with 3.9 seconds to play as Ateneo escaped with a 76-75 win over La Salle on Sunday to sweep the first round of the UAAP Season 80 basketball tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Nieto came up with a big deflection off an inbound pass by La Salle, which was protecting a one-point lead.
It led to Nieto getting fouled by a La Salle defender and he nailed two pressure-packed free throws to give Ateneo the lead.
On the last La Salle possession, Ben Mbala was unable to throw up a decent shot, allowing Ateneo to preseve its clean slate that now stands at 7-0 at the end of first round action.
Nieto finished with 16 points for the Blue Eagles, who led by as many as 14 points.
It was a stunning loss for La Salle, which had a 75-74 lead with 1:03 left in the fourth and forced a 24-second shotclock violation with only 7.8 seconds to play
Known for forcing turnovers, La Salle committed the critical miscue when Kib Montablo threw a lob to Andrei Caracut that was tapped by Nieto, who was fouled while attempting a shot.
"Actually, we were asking for better defense," said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.
"Credit to the players that in the final minutes, they followed the defensive scheme that coach Tab (Baldwin) wants us to do especially when we came up with that steal by Matt."
Anton Asistio had 13 points, while Jolo Mendoza added 10 points as the two combined for seven of Ateneo's nine triples.
Despite falling behind big in the first two quarters, La Salle was able to bounce back in the third quarter. The Green Archers closed out that quarter with a Ben Mbala follow-up and a Jollo Go triple to get to within a point, 63-62.
The Green Archers took the lead with three minutes left in the fourth on a tip in by Abu Tratter, 73-71.
Ricci Rivero contributed 19 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals for the Green Archers, who also got 18 points and 13 rebounds from Mbala.
La Salle ended the first round with a 5-2 record, tying Adamson for second place in the team standings.
Ateneo 76 - Ma. Nieto 16, Asistio 14, Mendoza 10, Ravena 9, Verano 6, Go 4, Tolentino 4, Mi. Nieto 4, Black 4, Mamuyac 3, Ikeh 2.
La Salle 75 - R. Rivero 19, Mbala 18, Go 11, P. Rivero 8, Caracut 5, Paraiso 5, Tratter 4, Montalbo 3, Santillan 2, Gonzales 0.
Quarterscores: 28-16; 43-36; 63-62; 76-75.