Manila, Philippines – Import Wesley Witherspoon knocked down 8 three-pointers and Air21 as a whole converted 15 – a franchise-record – as the Express outlasted the San Mig Coffee Mixers, 94-91, on Monday, May 5, to force a do-or-die Game 5 on Wednesday with a trip to the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Home TVolution Finals on the line.
Witherspoon, who totalled 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 steals in the contest, was helped out by locals Joseph Yeo, Asi Taulava, and Mark Cardona, who contributed 13, 12, and 11 markers, respectively.
The Mixers, on the other hand, got 26 points from PJ Simon and 22 from James Yap, while their import, James Mays, had 14 markers to go with 21 rebounds. Marc Pingris, meanwhile, had another troublesome night, putting up just 6 points and 6 boards.
“Probably they were looking forward to playing in the Finals,” Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren said about SMC after his team’s Game 4 victory. He also added that prior to tonight’s matchup, his team had no plans of taking an early vacation.
“They didn’t wanna end the conference today.”
After Simon converted on a lay-up off an Express turnover to make the count 66-61 in the third canto, Air21 generated 5 straight markers to enter the final quarter with a 10-point breathing room, capped off by Simon Atkins’ three-point bomb.
In the final period, Mark Cardona discharged 9 quick points in the first 6 minutes to help extend his club’s edge.
After Witherspoon’s eighth 3-ball and a three-point play by Atkins put the Express ahead, 90-73, with a little under 5 minutes to go, 6 quick points by the Mixers kept them within striking distance. However, consecutive field goals from Cardona and Yeo helped their team regain their 17-point advantage, which kept them in control the rest of the way.
“That’s why we’re in the semis,” mentioned Pumaren. “There’s a certain approach in every game. But during the last two games, it vanished.”
Though the final score had the Express winning by just three, the game was pretty much decided with two minutes remaining. Nevertheless, the Mixers were able to go on a last hurrah, and were able to get within just three after a Yap triple sinked in with 1.7 seconds to go in the game.
The Express were more physical to start Game 4 than they were in Game 3 by not allowing SMC’s bigs to grab easy offensive boards for put-back buckets.
Air21 surprised the Mixers’ offense by utilizing a full-court press on almost every SMC possession in the first half, which isn’t shocking for a Franz Pumaren-coached squad.
Thanks to a couple of treys from Witherspoon and Jonas Villanueva and a steal and acrobatic lay-up by Yeo, Air 21 raced off to an early threshold, going on top 16-7, while proving to be the more desperate team in the initial moments of the contest.
With his squad in need of a spark, Tim Cone turned to rookie Ian Sangalang, whom he requested to provide more firepower after Game 3.
However, the freshman struggled, going 1-of-3 from the field in the early goings, as the Express raced off to a 26-14 advantage after 12 minutes of play.
A three-point play from Sangalang and floater from Mark Barroca kick-started a potential run for San Mig Coffee in the opening moments of the second quarter.
But it didn’t take long for Witherspoon to respond with another couple of 3-balls, followed by some post-shot celebrations that drew irk from the SMC supporters at the Big Dome.
“Well, yesterday’s practice, we just did some soul-searching. Like what I was trying to tell the players, ‘We just have to enjoy this game, spread the floor, and if you’re open, don’t hesitate,’” added Pumaren when inquired on how his team was able to knock down so many threes.
The Mixers, which were struggling to get to their offensive sets thanks to Air21’s press and 2-3 zone, managed to attain some rhythm eventually thanks to a tandem of jumpers from James Yap, who got his squad within five, 38-33, with 2:30 to go in the second canto.
However, an easy lay-in for Taulava and another triple for Witherspoon, who had five in the first half, kept SMC at bay.
At halftime, the Express were on top, 48-39 – courtesy of a Yeo three moments before the end of the second period – and 24 minutes away from forcing Game 5.
Witherspoon continued his barrage of threes early in the third period, making two to bring his total up to seven at that point. However, the pesky Mixers would not go away, and were able to unfurl an 8-0 rally that was eventually halted by a Mark Borboran bunny at the rim.
Air21 (94): Witherspoon 32, Yeo 13, Taulava 12, Cardona 11, Borboran 8, Ramos 7, Atkins 6, Villanueva 3, Burtscher 2
San Mig Coffee (91): Simon 26, Yap 22, Mays 14, Sangalang 9, Pingris 6, Barroca 6, Devance 4, Melton 4, Mallari 0, Reavis 0
Quarter Scoring: 26-14, 48-39, 71-61, 94-91
Game Notes: After getting outrebounded, 54-26, in Game 3, the Express had just one less rebound (46-47) than the Mixers in tonight’s joust; Air21 forward Sean Anthony missed his second straight game with a foot injury; the Express’ 15 threes tied a conference record for most made threes by a team; SMC forced its opponents to 18 turnovers, which led to 23 points – Rappler.com