CHAMPIONSHIP experience was undoubtedly on the side of Ateneo as it dealt University of the Philippines an 88-79 defeat in Game One of the UAAP Season 81 Finals.
The Diliman playmakers were frank in their assessment on Saturday as the Fighting Maroons lost their poise as the game slowly slipped away from their grasps.
"I think it was more of experience. They were just used to playing in the Finals. That’s their advantage," rued Juan Gomez de Liaño, who wound up with 17 points and eight rebounds in the losing effort.
"It was just us slowly giving up in the last stretch. That shouldn’t be an excuse for us. It’s a Finals game and we’ve been preparing for this."
Team captain Diego Dario, who also chimed in nine points on a 3-of-6 shooting from deep, also pointed that out as UP fell by the wayside in the fourth period.
"It's our endgame execution. We had two turnovers, I think, in the last four minutes and we have to work on that, be more disciplined especially in the endgame. When we're tired, also syempre heavy minutes din yung iba, they have to think and play through the fatigue."
Matt Nieto led the Blue Eagles' endgame assault, using a 14-2 tear that turned a close 73-71 deficit with 5:48 remaining to a commanding 87-73 lead with 2:09 left.
Gomez de Liano admitted UP was caught off guard with Nieto's endgame explosion, where he dropped nine of his 27 points in the payoff period on a scintillating 4-of-5 shooting from deep.
"I actually thought he was more of a playmaker, but as we saw today, he was getting buckets," he said. "Next game, we should do a better job preparing to stop their players and just do a better job."
As much as that Finals experience became a game-tilting factor in Game One, Dario hopes that the championship atmosphere the Fighting Maroons have drawn since the end of the eliminations would be enough to help them hurdle the mighty challenge that are the Blue Eagles.
"Actually, it's been like these for the past few games," he said, with UP enjoying the support of its boisterous fans since its now-famous win over La Salle at the end of the eliminations. "We're kinda getting used to it but we also have to remember where we came from."
UP fights for its life on Wednesday for Game Two, at Smart Araneta Coliseum.