MANILA, Philippines — The Air21 Express can breathe a sigh of relief–for now.
It seems that the Express are slowly getting over their ‘almost but not quite’ problem in the PLDT myDSL Philippine Cup as they pulled the rug from underneath the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, 102-100, on Wednesday, January 8 at the SMART Araneta Coliseum.
“At least with this victory we’re still alive and kicking, we’re still in the hunt,” said Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren. “But I guess this victory is going to be short-lived, we just have to take care of business again come Saturday (against the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers).”
The Express peaked at the right moments in the final period as the finally succeeded in avoiding another meltdown after keeping it close for the entire game.
After trailing, 77-75, at the end of the third, the Express opened the last quarter with a 9-3 run to take over the Texters, 84-80.
Their momentum later dipped, however, due to Jimmy Alapag’s searing triples.
Alapag, who had been on a shooting slump so far in the conference, broke free in this game with 6 booming shots from rainbow country.
He shot back-to-back treys with less than 8 minutes left to turn their 2-point deficit into a 4-point lead, 88-84.
Finishing with 20 points and 5 assists, Alapag hit another one from the left corner, 97-91, with under 3 minutes remaining.
But his pristine show of leadership did not intimidate the Express one bit as they caught up by hitting timely baskets within the final two minutes.
Joseph Yeo completed the go-ahead and-one play on a drive to the hoop with 35 seconds left, giving Air21 a slight cushion, 99-97.
Over on the other end, Ranidel De Ocampo had a good look at the ring but his potential go-ahead three-pointer merely flirted with the metal before it rimmed out with 15 seconds left.
Bonbon Custodio, who had been playing steadily all game long and added 15 points to their cause, padded on Air21’s lead with two free throws, 101-97.
TNT had one last ditch attempt at stealing the victory after Jayson Castro made good on a corner three with 3 seconds on the clock to make it a one-possession game, 101-100. But they ran out of time after KG Canaleta split from the line.
In spite of the Texters’ searing 14 triples throughout the game, Air21 countered successfully by shooting much better from the field, going 33-of-56 for 58.9%. The Texters, on the other hand, converted only 19 of their 47 field goal attempts.
It was another close one for the Express but Pumaren was only happy to finally close out a game to their favor.
“I think this is the first time we really closed out well, we really played well and defended well down the stretch,” Pumaren explained. “There is a tendency for us during the home stretch, we tend to give up many important shots. At least with this one we were able to contain them in the last few seconds.”
Asi Taulava was a major factor in this game again as he dropped 17 of his total 23 points in the first half to help set up the Express for a late-game takeover to get the win. He was also a monster once again on the boards with 18 rebounds.
“And of course Asi (Taulava) really gave us a big lift to start pretty strong and the whole time I guess he really dominated the paint,” Pumaren said. “Looking at the stats of Asi (now) is like looking at Asi 5 or 8 years ago.
Yeo must also be commended for holding his own in playing the point and setting up his teammates. He gave up much of his offense but scored when needed on his way to 13 points and dishing out 12 assists.
With the upset, Air21 is in prime position to squeeze themselves in the 5-way logjam for fifth with a 3-9 slate. Talk ‘N Text retains hold of the fourth spot at 7-4.
Air21 (102): Taulava 23, Canaleta 16, Custodio 15, Matias 13, Yeo 13, Camson 10, Manuel 8, Cardona 4
Talk ‘N Text (100): Castro 21, Alapag 20, De Ocampo 14, Reyes 11, Baclao 11, Seigle 8, Fonacier 6, Anthony 4, Reyes 3, Carey 2
Quarter scores: 23-21, 45-46, 75-77, 102-100 -Rappler.com
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