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Ateneo beats UP in Game 1

Ateneo moved on the threshold of winning its second straight UAAP basketball crown after holding off University of the Philippines, 88-79, in the opener of their best-of-three Finals last night at the Mall of Asia Arena.

UP's Bright Akhuetie (left) and Ateneo's Angelo Kouame get ready to rebound during the UAAP Season 81 Finals Game 1 at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay. (Rio Leonelle Deluvio)

UP’s Bright Akhuetie (left) and Ateneo’s Angelo Kouame get ready to rebound during the UAAP Season 81 Finals Game 1 at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay. (Rio Leonelle Deluvio)

Matt Nieto displayed poise under pressure as he knocked down nine of his 27 points in the fourth quarter that enabled the Blue Eagles to see off repeated comeback attempts by the Fighting Maroons before a crowd of over 21,000.

Not even the return Bright Akhuetie from an injured left knee sustained in the third quarter could inspire a UP comeback, putting its rivals from the other side of Katipunan on the verge of retaining the title.

The Blue Eagles go for their 10th championship since joining the UAAP in 1978 with a win on Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

UP, in its first finals since winning it all in 1986, is forced to replicate the two dramatic victories over Adamson in the Final Four in order to complete a magical run that has captured the imagination of students and alumni of the state-run university.

Jun Manzo finished with 19 points and Juan Gomez de Liano added 17 for the Fighting Maroons.

But the team’s heart and soul, Paul Desiderio, was held to just five points on 2-of-7 shooting despite six rebounds and eight assists as he struggled against Ateneo’s defense.

Akhuetie was carried off on a stretcher with 6:31 left in the third after awkwardly falling to the ground following a bump by Ateneo’s Ange Kouame.

The soon-to-be Most Valuable Player eventually returned in the fourth, but Nieto began torturing the Fighting Maroons with key shots that kept the Blue Eagles afloat.

Earlier, National University closed in on a fifth consecutive women’s title after defeating Far Eastern University, 71-59.

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