Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - If there is any team that's good at playing the underdog role, it's the Air21 Express.
And if there was any perfect day for them to shed their underdog skin and play like the contender they can be, it was on Friday, April 25 when they played a do-or-die game against the San Miguel Beermen for a slot in the semifinals of the 2014 PLDT Home TVolution Commissioner's Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The 7th seed Air21 overcame a twice-to-beat disadvantage and slayed the second seed Beermen,101-95, employing solid defense and teamwork especially at crunch time to oust a San Miguel team that failed to reach their potential once again.
"I'm really speechless right now. I think we were able to slay the dragon," remarked Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren. "And I know for a fact that basketball experts didn't give us a chance to make it to the second round."
Down 79-70 after a Chris Ross basket with 2:50 left to play, Air21 rallied for a10-3 run to whittle down the lead to 82-80 with 12.1 ticks left after a split from the line by import Wesley Witherspoon.
It looked to be the end of the line for Air21 when Witherspoon heaved a triple that missed the ring badly. But the 41-year old Asi Taulava was right there under the basket, where he always has been since 1999, to grab the offensive board.
This time, proving that age is just a number, Taulava made the game-tying lay-up, 82-82, to force the first overtime.
Judging by the team's overjoyed reaction with Taulava literally carrying Mark Cardona around the court, that lay-up did much more for the Express than just force overtime. It lifted their spirits to heights that could not be reached by San Miguel in the extra 10 minutes of the game.
In the first of two overtimes, Air21 rode on their momentum but wasn't able to put away San Miguel just yet as Ross split from the line with 13.1 ticks left to knot the count at 88-all.
Cardona had a chance to win it for the Express in the final play but couldn't get his one-hander to go in.
Finally, the Express managed to pull away in the second overtime, building a 5-point cushion, 95-90, as Witherspoon scooped the ball up and in with 2:30 left. San Miguel couldn't recover from that as Air21 held on up until the final buzzer and allowed euphoria to kick in full throttle.
Physicality is the name of the game
It was an emotionally charged game marked by physicality all game long as both sides played with a kind of intensity that one can only witness in a do-or-die game.
The physicality went up a notch with 3:15 left in the first half when Joseph Yeo was called for a flagrant foul penalty 2 after he gave Ross a low blow. This caused Yeo to be thrown out of the game.
Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images
Prior to the play, Ross and Yeo were already going at it at the high post as the Beermen were a little cold and were dominated by the Express.
However, seeing their team captain down on the floor revived the Beermen as they claimed the lead and finished the opening half on top, 43-40.
San Miguel stepped up their intensity from that point on as last conference's Best Player June Mar Fajardo took the game by the neck and asserted himself in the paint.
Fajardo, however, finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out with 34.2 ticks left in regulation.
Fajardo was not the only Beermen that Air21 relegated to the bench for their fouls.
San Miguel lost Marcio Lassiter and Sol Mercado as they fouled out before the end of the fourth quarter. Doug Kramer followed during the second overtime.
At that point, it was the perfect time for Arwind Santos to step up and be the Most Valuable Player that he is.
But Air21's entire unit was just too much to overcome.
Santos ended up with 16 points and 8 rebounds. While their import Kevin Jones had 23 points and grabbed 16 boards.
Meanwhile, Ross figured in 18 markers for his team together with 5 assists and two steals.
"I just hope that my players won't be satisfied just making it to the semis," Punaren said. "We're all banged up. Hopefully we can get to that next level."
On the part of Air21, it was Witherspoon who led the way with 26 points.
Sean Anthony, who has been the X-factor for Air21 this conference, remained consistent and did all the damage underneath, providing hustle, energy and, most important of all, support for Taulava.
It was the 28-year old Canadian who did the dirty work that resulted to the fouling out of the Beermen's key players. He contributed 18 points and tracked down 12 rebounds.
The ageless Taulava, on the other hand, had 16 points and 9 rebounds in 45 minutes of play.
"The team really wanted to get this win," Pumaren said of his team who is now awaiting the winner of the best-of-3 quarterfinals between Commissioner's Cup defending champions Alaska Aces and the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers.
"We're just going to be the gate crashers in this particular semis. This team, they just don't want to lose.
"We were able to prove something that we can win despite our lineup."
Air 21 (101): Witherspoon 26, Anthony 18, Taulava 16, Yeo 11, Villanueva 8, Ramos 8, Cardona 8, Poligrates 5, Borboran 1, Burtscher 0, Menor 0.
San Miguel Beermen (95) : Jones 23, Fajardo 20, Ross 18, Santos 16, Lassiter 12, Hubalde 2, Lutz 2, Marcado 2, Maierhofer 0, Tubid 0, Lanete 0, Kramer 0.
Quarter scores: 21-17, 40-43, 56-65, 82-82, 88-88, 101-95.