MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Meralco Bolts outplayed the Star Hotshots in the fourth quarter to buck a cold start and come away with a 90-86 victory for their first win in the 2016 PBA Commissioner's Cup on Wednesday, February 10 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Bolts overcame the same team that served as their lone win in the previous Philippine Cup, where they missed the playoffs with a 1-10 record.
"It’s a big win for us, guys," head coach Norman Black sighed. "You just don’t know how big it is actually after coming off a 1-10 conference."
The win seemed like a cleansing of sorts for Meralco not just from the dismal Philippine Cup but also from a recent stroke of bad luck that could've demoralized the team further had they lost.
"It’s been a whirlwind of a week for us at Meralco. We brought Malcom Thomas in, who I think is a really good player, and he hurt his knee in one of our practices games so we had to find a replacement in 4 days," Black explained the last-minute import switch. "Fortunately for us Arinze was available and he was willing to fly in. Arinze arrived just last night, 12 midnight. I’m sure he’s a pretty tired guy right now."
Import Arinze Onuaku, whom Black equipped with just 3 plays right before the game, topscored with 25 points and 22 rebounds to go with 3 assists.
Onuaku, who played for the New Orleans Pelicans, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA, even sealed the deal on a crucial left-handed hook shot with 17.4 seconds to go for the final tally.
This despite knowing only Black's pick-and-roll, post-up, and double-high plays coming into the game.
"I thought he showed a lot of leadership for us today," Black commended his import. "He covered up a lot of our weaknesses, particularly as far as rebounding and interior defense and of course he made the big shot down the stretch to help us win the game."
Rookie swingman Chris Newsome played a spectacular game for Meralco dropping 11 of his 16 points in the final frame. He scored 4 straight points and sparked a 14-1 run that turned a 69-72 deficit with 8:11 remaining into an 83-73 advantage with 4:24 to go. He then sank a jumper and made it 85-75 a minute later.
Cliff Hodge had 12 points, 7 rebounds, a steal and a block, while Baser Amer added 10 points.
"I give a lot of credit to our local players who worked hard this off-season to try and erase what happened last conference," Black said. "Everybody was focused on getting to a good start this conference, especially since we know that we have a tough schedule to start."
It wasn't all good for Meralco in the first few minutes of the game.
The Bolts came out cold and stiff as the Hotshots raced to an 8-0 lead that eventually swelled to 22-8.
After the Bolts built a 10-point lead in the fourth, the Hotshots rallied to within 88-86 after a rare 4-point play by PJ Simon, who finished with 12 points, from the top of the key with 36.1 seconds to go. But Onuaku sank a left-handed hook shot against the defense of Star import Denzel Bowles for the final tally.
Bowles led Star with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Alein Maliksi had 14 markers while Mark Barroca flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists on top of 3 steals.
Meralco hopes the character win is a positive harbinger for a better conference this time around.
"Hopefully we will beat more than just Star this conference," Black said. "That’s exactly what Jason Webb said to me as I was walking towards him, hopefully we’ll be able to get more than one win this conference. I think we will."
Meralco (90): Onuaku 25, Newsome 16, Hodge 12, Amer 10, David 8, Nabong 7, Alapag 6, Caram 4, Faundo 2, Bono 0, Dillinger 0, Hugnatan 0.
Star (86): Bowles 20, Maliksi 14, Simon 12, Barroca 11, Pingris 8, Sangalang 5, Yap 5, Melton 4, Pascual 4, Cruz 3, Reavis 0, Torres 0.
Quarter scores: 18-26, 42-43, 67-65, 90-86.