MANILA, Philippines – Everybody thought the Alaska Aces had already won the 2016 PBA Philippine Cup championship when JVee Casio buried a corner triple to lead 93-82 with 3:31 left in the fourth Sunday, January 24.
The balloons hung trapped inside a net high above at the PhilSports Arena, awaiting to rain down on a sweet victory 16 years in the making.
Fans decked out in white roared and leaped to express the thrill of the Aces winning by a convincing sweep of defending champions San Miguel Beermen, the antagonist to two of Alaska’s bridesmaid finishes last season.
Even the Aces themselves felt they had done enough to suck the life out of the Beermen and win. But they didn’t. And Alaska had to learn the hard way that a moment of complacency in the PBA Finals can be costly.
“Lamang kami, maganda yung laro namin e. Kumbaga nagpabaya lang talaga kami nung last minute bago mag overtime (We were leading, we were playing well. We just got careless in the last minute before overtime),” veteran swingman Cyrus Baguio admitted.
“Kumbaga siguro nag-relax kami, kampante na, akala namin panalo na. Pero dinadahan-dahan kami so nabigla kami dun. Wala talaga, para sa kanila talaga yung game na 'yun.” (We relaxed, became complacent, we thought we had already won it. But they slowly got back. That game was really for them.)
San Miguel certainly looked defeated through most of Game 4. They were down 0-3 in the series with history nagging at them that no team has ever come back from that deficit. They could also see injured reigning back-to-back MVP and this conference’s Best Player June Mar Fajardo in street clothes on the bench, unable to receive assists nor dominate the paint.
But an Arwind Santos lay-up and a Marcio Lassiter 3-pointer made hanging heads look up. Before anybody knew it Gabby Espinas scored 5 straight points, the Aces committed crucial turnovers, Chris Ross was hustling, and the Beermen had already mounted a slow but steady 16-2 run to lead 98-95 with 4.5 seconds remaining.
“We had plenty of turnovers, they trapped us, and they employed a full-court press. They stole the ball a number of times and got defensive stops. That’s how they slowly caught up to us and we were startled by their defense,” Baguio explained in Filipino.
The 35-year-old Baguio did not deny that it was Alaska’s dream to sweep and get back at a San Miguel team that they cut down to size after last season’s disappointments. Armed with that dream, Baguio buried an open cold-blooded 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game at 98 and force overtime.
It seemed like fate was smiling down again on the Aces after that huge shot, which caused the historic ULTRA to rumble. It continued on that way to start overtime with Vic Manuel scoring 4 straight points for a 102-98 cushion.
However, Alaska’s complacency from the fourth quarter continued to cost them. San Miguel had renewed hope and the league’s winningest franchise would no longer just roll over and die realizing they can win.
The Beermen went on a 9-0 counter-rally highlighted by Alex Cabagnot’s go-ahead trey from the top of the key and Yancy De Ocampo’s basket for the 107-102 lead inside the final minute. The sweep was not to be as San Miguel lived to fight another day, 110-104.
“I said it wouldn’t be easy, and San Miguel showed what I thought of their character. They fought hard,” head coach Alex Compton said, noting his players may have gotten ahead of themselves amid the strong desire to finish it already.
“I didn’t sense any lazy from our guys. I felt some of our guys were gigil, like they were so fired up, which happens sometimes,” he explained. “I do believe that’s a factor, but that shouldn’t take away how well San Miguel played and how well they executed their game plan. They clearly deserve this win.”
Compton knew getting that last win would be the hardest. San Miguel is down, but they’re not out just yet.
“It’s a series for a reason,” said Compton, admitting the pressure is on both teams in these finals. “Everybody is talking about a sweep. It’s a tough team with a bunch of winners that’s well-coached. It's not easy to sweep anybody. I just want to try to come out of this championship series with a title.”
Expect Alaska to be better mentally for Game 5 on Wednesday, January 27, with a reaffirmed sense of urgency and a commitment to never relax until the final buzzer has sounded, Baguio says.
“I hope it will be different next game,” said Baguio, who finished with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. “I hope we have that mental focus in the endgame. We really need to focus. It’s hard, you can’t relax because they will catch up to us.”
Adjustments will also include limiting turnovers (21 in Game 4) and being more careful about those fouls (43 in Game 4 leading to 34-of-46 free throws for San Miguel).
“Our character will be tested come Game 5,” another veteran Dondon Hontiveros said in Filipino, sharing a bit of insight on the team’s mood after the game. “I’m excited because I saw in my teammates’ eyes they’re excited to play next game.”
Game 4 was the first time San Miguel defeated Alaska this conference, though the Aces have yet to lose back-to-back games in the Philippine Cup.
The Aces return to the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Wednesday for Game 5 – back to the site of their last All-Filipino Cup championship celebration at the end of the last millennium in 2000, which they also won in 5 games against Alvin Patrimonio and the Purefoods TJ Hotdogs.
The biggest mistake Alaska can make here is think they are assured of the title come Game 5 because of a 3-1 series lead. There was a lesson they needed to learn from that Game 4 loss. If they give another inch to San Miguel, they will make it a mile.
“Gusto ko nga tabla lang kami e para hindi yung sobrang kampante. Kasi wala pa sa amin yung trophy e. Kumbaga hindi naman ibibigay yan sa amin. Kunin dapat namin,” said Baguio.
“Pagtrabahuhan talaga namin kung gusto naming mag-champion ngayon. Hindi puwedeng ibigay na easy-easy lang kasi championship team yan e. Kailangan namin patunayan na kaya namin sila.”
(I kind of wish the series was tied so we won’t be too complacent. The trophy isn’t ours yet. They won’t hand it over to us. We have to take it from them. We have to really work hard if we want to become champions now. They won’t give it easily to us because they’re a champion team. We have to prove we can beat them.) – Rappler.com