WITH the lights shining the brightest, Ateneo's big guns finally came out to play.
Veterans Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena came out with blazing individual performances as the Blue Eagles inched closer to a second straight title after an 88-79 win in Game One of the UAAP Season 81 finals on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Nieto set a new career high with 27 points as Ravena flirted with a triple-double with 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists to push the Blue Eagles a win closer to their 10th title.
But the Fighting Maroons certainly gave the defending champions all it can handle.
The Fighting Maroons were just within two points 63-61 after three quarters, and was just down by three, 75-72,halfway through the fourth period.
But that's when Nieto took control of the game for good, firing eight points in a 12-1 run which ultimately finished off the fight from the Maroons.
Nieto's fourth three pointer in the game turned out to be the dagger as his three with 2:09 remaining gave the Blue Eagles an 87-73 lead.
"No question UP deserves to be in the finals. Whoever wins that series will be a good match up for us and we have to make sure that we play good offensively and defensively to win," said Ateneo assistant Sandy Arespacochaga.
Things looked bleak for the Fighting Maroons in the 6:31 mark of the third period as Bright Akhuetie had to be stretched out after taking a nudge from Ange Kouame at the back.
Akhuetie clutched on his left knee and had to be taken immediately to the dugout much to the worries of UP fans.
But those worries quickly turned into anger as fans half of the 21,608 people in attendance vehemently argued against the decision of the referees to let the play go.
Akhuetie did return in the 7:04 mark of the fourth quarter but that went for naught as the Blue Eagles finally had their backbreaking rally.
"At the end of the day breaks lang talaga," said Ravena.
"Breaks lang kaya nakaalagwa kami sa huli, UP really fought hard and they definitely deserve to be here," he added.
Nieto and Ravena also did it on the defensive end as the former had three steals while last year's finals MVP added two steals and two blocks.
Kouame struggled offensively as he finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in the game.
Jun Manzo led the way for the Fighting Maroons with19 points as Juan Gomez de Liano added 17 points and eight rebounds.
Akhuetie finished the game with 10 points and five boards.
Paul Desiderio was relegated to a playmaker as he was limited to just six points though he added eight assists in the loss.
ATENEO 88 – Nieto Ma. 27, Ravena 21, Kouame 7, Verano 6, Tio 6, Mamuyac 5, Asistio 4, Nieto Mi. 4, Wong 3, Mendoza 3, Go 2, Navarro 0.
UP 79– Manzo 19, Gomez de Liaño Ju. 17, Gomez de Liaño Ja. 11, Akhuetie 10, Dario 9, Desiderio 5, Tungcab 3, Vito 3, Prado 2, Murrell 0, Jaboneta 0, Gozum 0.
Quarters: 26-18, 39-38, 63-61, 88-79