[PHOTO AT LEFT- Ateneo center Rabeh Al-Hussaini scores over two La Salle players in Game 1 of the UAAP finals. JUN MENDOZA]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 22, 2008 (STAR)  By Abac Cordero - Rabeh Al-Hussaini dished out an MVP performance last night and Ateneo moved one win away from its first UAAP championship in six years.

The 6-foot-6 Al-Hussaini had 31 big points in 36 long minutes to lead Ateneo past defending champion La Salle, 69-61, at the jampacked Araneta Coliseum.

The Green Archers couldn’t find the answer to Al-Hussaini, who had 20 points in the final half of the opening game of the best-of-three affair.

Chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” filled the venue after Al-Hussaini scored four straight points for a 65-52 Ateneo lead with only 3:24 left.

Ateneo patron Manny V. Pangilinan, also known as MVP, was ribbed by those seated around him at ringside as the crowd cheered Al-Hussaini.

Except for a couple of hard fouls and some pushing and shoving, it was a good, clean fight. As the Ateneo school hymn was sung at the end of the game, a group of fans in green cheered along.

The Blue Eagles practically led in the entire game, allowing the Green Archers only a tiny taste of the lead at 29-26, three minutes left in the second quarter.

But Jai Reyes, Ateneo’s little big man, orchestrated a 10-0 Ateneo counter-attack. He opened up the second quarter with a triple, and closed it out with another trey.

From a 36-29 halftime lead, Ateneo moved up to 40-29 and then enjoyed its biggest lead at 51-37. La Salle went on another run but all it could do was chop the lead to 49-55.

The Blue Eagles will go for it on Thursday. They will eye their first UAAP crown since 2002, the year they defeated the Green Archers in the finals, and their fourth overall.

The only way for La Salle to win the title now is to win two straight games against Ateneo, a team they haven’t beaten in three meetings so far this season.

“They’re capable of beating us,” said Ateneo coach Norman Black, never a champion for the white-and-blue team since he took over the reins in 2005.

“But that’s not our focus. Our focus is to win the championship and beat them one more time,” added Black, who steered Ateneo to the 2006 finals only to lose to Santo Tomas.

Now this is the chance. “I’m happy where I am right now,” said Black, who said he lost his voice in practice the other day. Then he turned to Al-Hussaini who was seated to his left during the post-game interview.

“Exceptional,” was the word he found to describe his center, a shoo-in for the coveted MVP award that will be handed out on Thursday.

“If there are questions about the award, I think he answered those questions today. But I just cautioned him and cautioned my team that our business is unfinished,” said the coach.

Like Black, Al-Hussaini said the goal is to win the championship, and not the individual awards.

“One more game. I don’t care (about the award). I want the championship,” he said.

“We’re all thinking about the championship - not the stats. If the award comes, then it’s a bonus. What’s important is the ring because it’s for all of us,” said Al-Hussaini.

Rookie Ryan Buenafe and Reyes had a dozen points each for Ateneo while Nonoy Baclao had seven blocks and seven rebounds on top of his five points.

JV Casio, as expected, carried the brunt for La Salle, dishing out 20 points while Rico Maierhofer had 17. They were the only ones with double figures for La Salle, now in danger of losing the crown.

After committing 15 turnovers in the first half, Ateneo limited themselves to eight in the second half. La Salle had 18 in the game.

The Blue Eagles came out of the dugout wearing black shirts with the No. 24 printed at the back. It was learned that they had decided to dedicate the series to their coach who wore the No. 24 jersey in his PBA days.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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