Going the distance: Alaska vs SMB Game 7 preview

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at Jan 21 2015 03:45 PM | Updated as of Jan 21 2015 11:45 PM

Calvin Abueva of Alaska (light) vs Arwind Santos of San Miguel (dark). PBA image by Nuki Sabio

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup Finals reached a climactic Game Seven. After all, as the league celebrates its 40th season, the tournament once known as the “All-Filipino Conference” is universally acknowledged as the most prestigious of the PBA’s annual three trophies.

The teams with the most championships in league history have literally pushed and shoved each other onto one single game to determine which of them will be heralded (at least for the next few months) as local basketball’s finest.

When Casio misfires, Alaska suffers

Both sides had to contend with each other, the fans, as well as altered start times to their games due to the recent papal visit. Even as the Alaska Aces grabbed a 2-1 lead over the San Miguel Beermen heading into a fourth game, they had no idea that one of their most trusted weapons would suddenly start shooting blanks.

Jvee Casio, a champion in high school, college and with Alaska, has earned his place as a feared shooter from long range. But when Coach Alex Compton’s side was looking to earn a commanding 3-1 lead, Casio only attempted twice from long range, not connecting on either shot.

Coach Leo Austria also contributed to Casio’s woes when he finally unleashed Alex Cabagnot on the Aces to the tune of 22 points on a variety of shots. He got support from the bench in the form of Ronald Tubid’s 13 markers and San Miguel evened the series via an 88-70 blowout.

The importance of Game Five was not lost on either quintet, and Compton inserted Ping Exciminiano into the Alaska starting five to hound Cabagnot, while Eric Menk was assigned to bang with JuneMar Fajardo from the onset. As the game wore on, it was clear that the Aces were trying to get Casio into some kind of offensive rhythm. Unfortunately the former De La Salle Green Archer continued to misfire despite his team’s faith, going scoreless for an unprecedented second straight game.

Fajardo’s 19 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks was backstopped by Arwind Santos’ own 19 points, nine rebounds, and another five blocks to place the Beermen on the cusp of the crown, 93-88.

Casio unleashed, Fajardo shackled

With their backs against the wall, Alaska started out flat in Game Six, trailing SMB 2-15 early. Compton then shook things up, substituting Calvin Abueva, Dondon Hontiveros and Exciminiano to stage a comeback. The strategy largely worked as Alaska cut the lead to 17-23 to end the first quarter, but Abueva was saddled with three personal fouls to ensure he would sit for the entirety of the second quarter.

Hontiveros and Vic Manuel opened the second with a 9-0 blast to give the Aces a 25-23 edge, and the veteran Cebuano gunner kept connecting from the outside as he did when he was himself a Beerman a decade ago. Sonny Thoss and Cyrus Baguio also got their shots in as Alaska led at the half, 42-36.

The Aces continued to play like a desperate team in the third quarter, establishing a 50-38 lead to start the second half. The Beermen eventually found their range from beyond the arc, but thankfully for Alaska fans, so did Casio. His first triple in three games saw the Aces heave a collective sigh of relief as they kept a 63-56 advantage into the final canto.

From there, a big 11-0 run highlighted by a fading jumper in the paint from Casio built the lead to 83-66. However, San Miguel had one last rally in them to get back in 83-76. The final nail in the Beermen’s collective coffin was Thoss’ jumper with 42 seconds to play, and the final score saw Alaska force this Game Seven, 87-76.

For all of Hontiveros, Thoss and Casio’s heroics on offense, it was their stifling defense on reigning MVP and Best Player of the Conference Fajardo that gave them a decisive advantage. The 6-foot-11 slotman from the University of Cebu was held to a measly nine points, and not even 24 points from Santos could offset that in the end.

Who will blink first?

And so, here we are again with another Game Seven in the PBA Finals. The last Finals series that went the distance saw the then-San Mig Coffee Mixers outlast the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in last year’s Governors’ Cup on their way to the Grand Slam.

The last time the Beermen played a seventh game, they were still the Petron Blaze Boosters and they lost to those same Mixers in the 2013 Governors’ Cup. On the other hand, Alaska’s most recent Game Seven experience saw them lose in the 2014 Governors’ Cup semifinals to Rain or Shine.

Each side has faced adversity and has probably received the best (figurative) punch that their opponent has thrown so far. At this point, it might require a miraculous performance by an unheralded bench player (or in local parlance, a “hugot” by one of the coaches) to shock their opposite number.

After four decades of PBA basketball, we shouldn’t really be surprised that we’ve been rewarded with this fantastic seven game showdown.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.