Matt Nieto saves the day for Ateneo.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles escaped with a 76-75 victory against defending champions De La Salle Green Archers, thanks to a crucial defensive stop by Nieto.
The third-year point guard attributed their endgame success to sheer luck and their intense desire to win one over their archrivals.
“Sinwerte na lang kami sa last play. We followed coach Tab’s defensive scheme, and luckily, naging successful yung scheme nya. And wala, walang may gustong magpatalo. Iba talaga pag Ateneo-La Salle,” he said.
La Salle was up by one with 9.1 seconds left when Nieto made the game-saving deflection. He was able to read what the Green Archers would do in the inbound play and he reacted accordingly.
“I was denying Andrei (Caracut) and then when I looked behind, I saw that everybody was denied also. So yung chance lang is Andrei getting that lob from Kib (Montalbo). I tried to tempt them to lob the pass, so when the lob is there, I just tipped it to our court,” Nieto said when asked how he managed to intercept the pass. “Luckily, Gian (Mamuyac) saw the tap and he got it. Then, nangyari na yung nangyari.”
Rookie Gian Mamuyac was instrumental in completing the steal as he ran all the way from the other side of the court to prevent La Salle from recovering the possession. Caracut was able to grab the ball and stop it from going out of bounds, but it ended up in Nieto’s hands.
Nieto then had the presence of mind to immediately drive to the hoop and draw a foul as he attempted a shot. He calmly drained two free throws with 3.9 seconds on the clock to give the Blue Eagles the win.
The 6-foot-1 athlete shared that he was just relaxed when he trooped to the line because as a team, they always practice their free throws. “It’s the same routine, whether it’s the first free throw sa game or my last free throw. So I shot it like it’s just my normal routine. Luckily, buti naman nag-pay off yung practice ko ng free throws.”
Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga mentioned that they were prepared to shoot from the charity stripe given La Salle’s defensive style. “Like Matt said, we really put a lot of emphasis on our free throws. We know they’re gonna press us a lot and they’re gonna commit fouls in their press.”
By nailing those game-winning freebies, Nieto more than made up for his missed free throw earlier at the 1:57 mark of the fourth that made it a one-point game in their favor. Ben Mbala was able to push the Green Archers ahead before Ateneo stole the lead again for good.
“It says a lot about the courage and composure of this young man right here because he missed the free throw that could have given us a two-point lead. [It] says a lot about the character, maturity of Matt,” said Arespacochaga in praise of Nieto’s efforts.
Even Thirdy Ravena kept on thanking his teammate for a job well done, especially since prior to that sequence, it was him who missed the opportunity to give the advantage back to the Blue Eagles. His basket was denied and they ended up being whistled for a 24-second shot clock violation.
“Gusto ko lang pasalamatan si Matt dun sa ginawa nya nung huli kasi muntikan na ako madale dun eh. It was a good save, great defensive effort by the entire team in that crucial possession,” Ravena said. “I’m just proud that we all stuck to the game plan, to what coach Tab drew in the timeout. I just want to thank Matt dun talaga sa ginawa nya. I praise him for his effort.”
The match was on the line and Nieto delivered when it mattered most. What he did was definitely something unforgettable but the humble player said that he won’t let this get to his head.
“Next game na lang ang iisipin ko. When it comes, an opportunity like that, I will just follow coach Tab because he knows best,” Nieto closed.