For much of Game 1 of the UAAP Season 84 Finals between the UP Fighting Maroons and the Ateneo Blue Eagles, Ricci Rivero and Zavier Lucero were a mess.
Sure, Rivero still put points on the board, but if not for his stellar free throw shooting, the clamor for his head would’ve been as loud as the chants heard from Ayala Avenue last night.
Lucero had it worse as he could not convert any of his field goal attempts until the second half. The rebounding was there and the activity was always welcome, but what’s an extra possession if it won’t lead to points on the board for the Fighting Maroons?
As such, the struggles certainly gave the UP faithful worries and as Game 1 entered the fourth quarter, the Blue Eagles seemed poised to be a win away from their fourth straight UAAP championship. But then, with less than a minute left in the game, the script flipped.
Lucero came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points and grabbing four offensive rebounds. This time, those second chances mattered as Lucero helped cut the Ateneo lead bit-by-bit, with his effort generating momentum that led to crucial stops and a game-tying 3-pointer from James Spencer.
Overtime ideally brought both the Fighting Maroons and the Blue Eagles back to square one, but Malick Diouf fouling out just as the extra period began seemed to spell doom for UP. Thankfully, Rivero set out to atone for all the head-scratching decisions he made earlier. The former DLSU Green Archer’s five points were the most by any player in overtime (and were more than what Ateneo scored in the extra period) although none were as important as his big three-point play that gave the Fighting Maroons the lead for good with 2:30 left in the game.
Thanks to the efforts of Lucero and Rivero, UP not only handed the Blue Eagles their first finals loss since 2017, but they also put themselves in the driver’s seat in this series. It wasn’t an easy game nor was it an efficient one for both teams, but big shots made the difference in the end. Normally the more poised team, Ateneo could not execute in the end. Among other things, lead guard SJ Belangel went down with an injury late in the game and they were unable to maximize the absence of Diouf, which should have made it easier for Ange Kouame to feast inside.
Of course, the Fighting Maroons weren’t completely absolved from execution woes, as questionable shot selection and some errant passes prevented them from creating separation when Kouame was in foul trouble. That Kouame was absent in certain stretches of the game certainly helped Lucero and Diouf get more rebounds, but those missed chances for more points could have hurt them in the end.
Rivero and Lucero brought UP to the brink of their first title in more than three decades, but getting the job done in Game 2 will require even better execution especially in the earlier stages of the game. The Blue Eagles won’t go down without a fight and will not miss 14 of their 25 free throw attempts in Game 2. Moreover, Rivero and Lucero will now be marked men for Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin’s defensive counters.
As close as the game went down to in the final minutes and in overtime, maximizing possessions will be crucial. Rebounding will then be key especially when efficiency remains subpar and while the 29 offensive rebounds, 26 Blue Eagle turnovers, and 16 steals should be areas to build on, the Fighting Maroons do need to cut down on their 19 turnovers and the 27 perimeter points they gave up.
It’s been said that the stars come out to play especially in the highest stakes and despite their early struggles, Ricci Rivero and Zavier Lucero did not shy away from the big stage. Game 2 will likely require more for them and the rest of the UP Fighting Maroons and they should take to heart the lessons from Game 1 if they want to close things out on Wednesday.