MANILA, Philippines - Air21 had a good dinner after beating San Miguel Beer on Tuesday night. But once the clock hit 12 midnight, they were all back to work, contemplating their do-or-die Game 2 showdown.
There was doubt if anyone could really step over and take the place of KG Canaleta – the Express' leading scorer with 15.6 PPG who was shipped to Talk 'N Text midway through the Philippine Cup.
Canaleta's size, sweet touch from the outside, and athleticism made him one of the cornerstones of Air21's franchise over the past two seasons.
But the Express had to make a handful of sacrifices in order to rise and free themselves from the misery brought by the PBA cellar.
Canaleta was dealt to Talk 'N Text for tough nut Sean Anthony and rookie point guard Eliud Poligrates plus a 2016 first rounder. The Express also landed Jonas Villanueva while giving away Bonbon Custodio.
Ronnie Matias and Carlo Sharma were the next two they had to let go, and welcomed 'raging bull' Enrico Villanueva in their fold. The last to depart, Vic Manuel, was sent to Alaska for young forward Aldrech Ramos.
With their backs against the wall against a heavily-favored San Miguel crew, all the wheeling and dealing answered the doubts.
It wasn't just an individual that filled the void left by Canaleta's absence, but rather a collective effort that emanated from head coach Franz Pumaren's inspired troops.
Eliud Poligrates tallied 9 points at the half and finished with 11. Sean Anthony rifled 25 points - his best this conference - and the evergreen Asi Taulava continued defying the odds with another hulking performance with 17 points and 8 rebounds.
“We played smart and kept our composure. It was effort that we held down the number one scoring team," said Pumaren, who ironically was a part of the 1989 Grand Slam San Miguel Beer squad, a team he now seeks to eliminate.
"Sean Anthony was phenomenal. Asi Taualava and Wesley Witherspoon made key baskets down the stretch."
In contrast, Marcio Lassiter and Arwind Santos were a combined 5-of-22 from the field. June Mar Fajardo was haunted by foul trouble and spent only 24 minutes while shooting a sparse 3 attempts.
The Express had nothing to lose, but are now halfway done.
Anthony, who played for the 8th-seeded Powerade Tigers of 2012 that upset top-seeded BMeg Llamados, played unfazed as he dealt with the familiar situation with ease.
"It's a great opportunity, when in reality there's nothing to lose. No one expected us to win tonight, no one is probably expecting us to win on Friday, so we have nothing to lose and everything to win," said Anthony, the 6th overall pick in the 2010 PBA Draft.
The 6-foot-4 Fil-Canadian was a vital cog in Powerade's colossal upset of the Llamados. They made the finals that conference, only yielding to Talk 'N Text in 5 games.
He's been with the Tigers, a squad which knows how to be the underdog, knows how to pull off surprises, knows how to deal with the phrase "do-or-die."
Here he is again with the Express, trying to pull the unthinkable feat.
"I love this system, I love the guys and there's a lot of opportunity just to share the ball, play as a team, and tonight we played as a team," he added.
"We'll go out and play our hearts out and hopefully get a win game."
San Miguel coaching consultant Todd Purves is not surprised with the way Air21 played.
"We're very aware of those players, and they're good basketball players. You try to stop some players, but you have a good team like Air21, guys like Sean Anthony and Eloy (Poligrates)," said Purves.
But if their crew continues playing without effort on Friday night, that might be the time Purves gets stunned.
San Miguel (then Petron Blaze Boosters) blew up in the semifinals against lower-seeded Rain or Shine last conference. Will they be surprised again this time or finally live up to their hype?
The decider between Air21 and San Miguel is on Friday, April 25 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
- Rappler.com with reports from Aimee Cando