Cliff Hodge plays his 'best game ever' to propel Meralco to PBA Finals
MANILA, Philippines – After burying a 3-pointer from the top of the key midway in the fourth quarter, Cliff Hodge officially played the "best game ever"of his entire basketball life.
And the 28-year-old picked the perfect time to do so.
The Meralco Bolts needed not only a huge collective effort, but also a big career game from Hodge to pull off a major upset and finally reach the PBA Finals for the first time in the franchise's 6-year existence.
"Yes, in my whole career – high school, college – this is probably my best game ever," Hodge told reporters after he set a new career-high 32 points in a historic 94-88 victory over sister team TNT KaTropa in game 4 of the semifinals.
"I mean, you gotta shoot to make it so I said I'm gonna let it fly," he added with a grin.
The 6-foot-4 forward shot 12-of-19 from the field and made 3 treys including the dagger triple with under a minute to go in the most important contest for Meralco so far.
Hodge, who also pulled down 4 rebounds, stayed on the floor for over 46 minutes but not once let exhaustion creep in. He waited 4 years for this, after all.
"It's been 4 years. I know that last conference we had a chance to get there. I was just super hungry, and I knew that with JD (Jared Dillinger) down, someone had to step up, and I just tried to step up as much as possible," Hodge said.
The fourth overall pick from the 2012 draft was relentless all game long, especially in the final frame, where he uncorked 12 points and made shots in the most critical moments Meralco needed them.
He broke his previous 25-point career-high with exactly 5:02 remaining in the game with a trey that put the Bolts up 77-70. He later buried a beautifully-executed turnaround jumper from the baseline over rookie Troy Rosario to push Meralco's lead up to 86-76 with under two minutes to go.
But his biggest basket of the night was a clutch 3-pointer from the right corner, which effectively snuffed out TNT's rally, re-established a 6-point cushion with 49.6 seconds left, and secured the third straight series-clinching victory for Meralco after dropping game 1.
"They were helping, they had to help on AD (Allen Durham) a lot, so I was just spotting up," Hodge said of his dagger trey.
"And before the game I was getting a lot of threes up and my shot felt really good, so I knew it was going to be a good game. I just had to stay composed, stay calm and knock them down."
Toiling away for 4 years in quiet gyms is finally paying off for the Filipino-American from Florida.
"What a game by Cliff Hodge. That was unbelievable," head coach Norman Black said. "We needed every single bit of his energy, we needed every single bit of his production. That just goes to show that he's really grown as a player. Hopefully he'll start to get some recognition for that as we go forward."
But Hodge isn't concerned about recognition.
"For me, no, it's not," he said. "For me it's about being the best player for my team and helping these guys out, and trying to win as many games as possible. I'm still kind of speechless with what happened tonight, it's amazing."
Like every other Meralco player and member of the coaching staff, Hodge carried with him the bitter memory of their franchise-worst 1-10 performance in this season's Philippine Cup 8 months ago.
"I mean, that first conference was an eye-opener," Hodge reflected. "We lost a lot of close games and after that conference, we all got in the gym and we decided that we're going to switch this around."
It has been an incredible 180-degree turnaround for them since.
"I was actually speechless after the game. It's a surreal feeling," he said. "Now that we finally got here, we don't want to waste it because it took us 4 years to get here, so we're going to come out and try to win this."
Meralco will face either Barangay Ginebra or San Miguel Beer in a best-of-7 series starting Friday, October 7, with the two teams set to decide a winner Tuesday night, October 4.
Hodge already has his pick of opponent.
"Oh I want Ginebra," he admitted with a smile. "I love playing against the crowd. When it's a big crowd, everyone's feeling the adrenaline." – Rappler.com
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