MANILA, Philippines - In the PBA's intense semifinal wars, no lead is safe, especially for a gritty Air21 crew that knows how to fight tooth and nail.
The Air21 Express never surrendered in their semifinals opener, battling back with a searing explosion in the fourth quarter to shock San Mig Coffee, 103-100 in the 2014 PLDT Home Tvolution PBA Commissioner's Cup on Tuesday, April 29 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Playing catch-up for most of the match, the heavy underdogs relied on their suffocating defense in the final period, exerting pressure and giving their opponents trouble with different defensive schemes while erupting for 37 points.
Comfortably ahead 74-66 at the start of the fourth, the Mixers were stunned by the Express' defense, unable to find the answer as Air21 nailed key baskets down the wire.
An Aldrech Ramos trey gave Air21 an 88-87 edge with only 3:43 to go, followed by a Joseph Yeo and-one play coming off a turnover to push the lead to 91-87.
San Mig melted on offense, failing to find a field goal over a of three minute span, leading to the game-turning play which added more tension to the already heated match up.
Asi Taulava drove from top of the key and appeared to take too many steps before making a hoop; however, the referees did not see the miscue, and it compelled a fuming Mixers mentor Tim Cone to storm the court.
Cone was ejected with two technicals, and Sean Anthony and Wesley Witherspoon completed the turnaround with more points from the line to make it a 98-90 game in the last 1:17.
James Mays attempted to pull off a miracle as he single-handedly carried the Mixers in a last-ditch effort, scattering 12 straight points highlighted by two triples and a putback that pulled San Mig within three, 100-103 with only three seconds left.
Anthony was fouled on the other end coming off a timeout, but failed to hit both charities. However, the Mixers had no more stoppages left as Pingris hurried to bring the basketball up front, finding Mays for a desperation shot that went astray after the buzzer.
The seventh-seeded Express took the 1-0 edge into their best of 5 semifinals duel, moving two wins closer to the championship round.
"What can I say. It's a team effort. We don't want to quit. There were times we are down big but we just regrouped and did what we're supposed to do," said Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren, who reminded his wards to remain hungry.
"We are here to seize the moment. We are uninvited guests in the semis. We still need two more games. This is just a small step in the series."
Sean Anthony topscored everybody with a career high-tying 29 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter on a hot 5 of 6 shooting from beyond the arc. Wesley Witherspoon added 25 points for the Express, who recorded 13 steals as a group and forced 20 turnovers from the Mixers.
Air21 (103) - Anthony 29, Witherspoon 25, Taulava 14, Yeo 11, Ramos 9, Poligrates 7, Cardona 4, Borboran 2, Villanueva 2, Burtscher 0, Camson 0.
San Mig (100) - Mays 27, Barroca 11, Simon 11, Devance 10, Sangalang 10, Melton 8, Pingris 7, Mallari 7, Reavis 6, Yap 3, De Ocampo 0.
Quarter scores: 23-24, 48-51, 66-74 103-100.