NICO SALVA poured in a career-high30 points and paced a telling third-quarter run that led Ateneo to an 83-78 win over University of Santo Tomas in Game One on Saturday and within a win of a fifth successive UAAP seniors basketball title.
Salva, playing out his fifth and final year of eligibility, led a 17-0 third-quarter blitz that pumped life into the cold-shooting Eagles and turned around a game which the Tigers had dominated up until that point.
Unheralded guard Juami Tiongson and veteran Ronjay Buenafe also stepped up for the Eagles when things got tight again in the endgame before Kiefer Ravena, usually silent for much of the game, drove the final nail in UST's coffin with a clutch jumper in the final eight seconds.
Ateneo can sweep the best-of-seven series - and move two titles short of the record seven straight titles won by a fabled University of the East team coached by Baby Dalupan in the sixties and seventies - when Game Two is played on Thursday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“Actually, I thought that we executed very well in the first half,” said Ateneo coach Norman Black. “It was just that we missed a lot of lay-ups and missed a lot of easy shots.
“I just told the boys at halftime to be aggressive. They are not a shot-blocking team… so we should be very aggressive to the basket and not settle for outside shots.”
Salva’s output matched the previous 30-point eruption in the finals of ex-Ateneo star LA Tenorio in 2002 and was just one short of Rabeh Al-Hussaini's 31 back in 2008.
Salva was only the fourth player this year to score more than 30 points in a game, joining Bobby Ray Parks of National University (twice), Jericho Cruz of Adamson and Jeron Teng of La Salle.
With his performance, Salva, who seemed to play better in the games that mattered most, is on pace to winning his second consecutive Finals MVP award.
“I just want to win championships,” said Salva, who was also a recipient of the Finals MVP in last year's title series sweep of Far Eastern University. “’Yun lang nasa utak ko, I want to win the championship and ‘yun ang focus ko.”
Salva shot 14-of-23 from the field, grabbed five rebounds and had two assists in the Game One victory.
UST coach Pido Jarencio admitted they didn’t do a good job guarding Salva.
“Medyo napabayaan, breakout game ni Nico ‘yun, hindi ko aalisin ‘yun. Ganda ng linaro ng bata,” Jarencio said.
The Blue Eagles made only 37 percent of their shots and trailed for much of the first half, but the Salva-led runin the third quarter pulled Ateneo ahead, 48-38, en route to a 61-51 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But UST answered with its own run of 11 straight points capped by a dunk by Karim Abdul to grab a 64-63 lead.
Ateneo, however, pulled away behind a four-point play by Buenafe, 77-70, followed by back-to-back baskets by Tiongson that gave the Blue Eagles an 81-72 lead with nearly one minute to go in the game.
Jeric Teng had back-to-back triples to cut the deficit to three points but Ravena, who finished with 13 points, hit a jumper from the left side with 8.8 ticks left that put the outcome beyond doubt.
The game, however, ended in a chaos as UST coach Pido Jarencio confronted the referees over what he believed were several glaring non-calls that worked against the Tigers late in the game.
Teng finished with 25 points while Aljon Mariano had 22 for the Tigers. However, several UST players were in foul trouble for most of the game with Abdul fouling out and Kevin Ferrer finishing with four fouls.
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.
Quarterscores: 18-24; 31-38; 61-51; 83-78.