Beer on Top

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at Jan 23 2015 06:23 PM | Updated as of Jan 24 2015 02:23 AM

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

Epic. Classic. Unforgettable. If these words have been overused to describe past PBA Finals, they definitely deserve being mentioned when talking about the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup Finals between San Miguel Beer and Alaska. Over the course of seven games, the Beermen and Aces threw down with blowouts, comebacks, tight games, and game-winning shots that you would expect from the two franchises with the most titles in the league’s 40-year history. In the end however, it was the highly touted Beermen, who ended the elimination round with the top seed, who would emerge victorious for their 20th league title.

You can’t put a good man down

The road to a Game Seven victory was a long and perilous one for Coach Leo Austria. After being largely unsuccessful in his first PBA stint as head coach with the Welcoat Dragons, Austria went to the UAAP to mentor the Adamson Falcons. There, Austria earned the respect and admiration of other schools and coaches as the Falcons, though often defeated in recruiting top high school talent, showed fighting hearts thanks to the fatherly Austria coaching them.

During a hiatus between UAAP seasons, the former Formula Shell point guard even coached the similarly-named San Miguel Beermen that competed in the Asian Basketball League in 2013. That squad was powered by veterans Asi Taulava and Eric Menk, as well as current Alaska rookie Chris Banchero.

Proving themselves to be a fickle, if not ungrateful entity, Adamson relieved Austria of his head coaching duties at the end of the UAAP’s 75th season despite the school achieving a Final Four berth just the season before. The 1985 PBA Rookie of the Year was left out of the coaching loop in the pro league as well when San Miguel management placed Todd Purves as “active consultant” to oversee Biboy Ravanes. Since Purves and Austria clashed in certain past situations, the affable Austria was suddenly without a coaching job.

After assuming a role in the Athletics Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, San Miguel Beer came calling once again. SMB management desperately wanted some stability to end the past “Petronovelas” that resulted in backbiting and general discord between players in the PBA’s only remaining founding franchise. Though largely unsaid, San Miguel Beer clearly wanted to return to its winning past, something that sister team Purefoods did last year when they achieved the fourth Grand Slam in PBA history. To bring order, they called on Austria.

Reclamation project

With two Most Valuable Player winners in Arwind Santos and JuneMar Fajardo in his line-up, talent on the wings in Chris Lutz, Marcio Lassiter, and Ronald Tubid, effective bangers like Doug Kramer, Rico Maierhofer, and Justin Chua, and a decent point guard in Chris Ross, Austria already had at his command a deep squad. Before the playoff round began, he traded Sol Mercado to bring back Alex Cabagnot to the team he led to a 2011 PBA Governors’ Cup. However, if San Miguel was to achieve any success, this team needed to stand on the broad shoulders of Fajardo and Santos.

Coming off his MVP-winning season of 2014, Fajardo had clearly become the match-up nightmare the league envisioned when he was drafted with the number one overall pick in 2013. The tantalizing combination of size, footwork, and soft touch from mid-range made him virtually unguardable one-on-one, and his teammates recognized this and readily exploited this on a nightly basis. Making it to the Philippine Cup Finals would not be enough, however, for a team that is used to winning titles.

No crumbling this time

Licking their wounds after losing Game Six to the Aces and former Austria deputy Alex Compton, all bets were off between both sides on the night of January 21. By now, you’ve probably heard of some of the stories around that game. San Miguel Beer established a huge 23-point lead in the first half. Undaunted and repeating what they did in Games 1 and 4, the Aces clawed their way back behind “The Beast” Calvin Abueva.

With 4:20 left in the game, Alaska had a relatively comfortable 74-68 lead and looked on their way to claiming their 15th league title and first behind Coach Compton. But the Beermen finally turned the tables on the underdog Aces, mounting their own comeback in the endgame.

Then with 43.7 seconds left on the game clock, Santos took the biggest shot of his career. Perhaps no one on the SMB roster has taken more abuse and criticism than the former FEU Tamaraw and 2013 league MVP. Often accused of caring more about his stats than helping his team win, refusing to cede leadership to Fajardo, and preferring to play on the perimeter than mixing it up in the paint, Santos shot a triple to give San Miguel an 80-78 edge. When Alaska couldn’t convert the rest of the way, their 15 missed free throws came back to haunt them as SMB ended their title drought.

Redemption

For the first time in 14 years, the fabled San Miguel Beer franchise had won a Philippine Cup/All-Filipino Conference Championship. Santos was awarded Finals MVP honors behind averages of 18.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.2 assists, and 1.4 steals. The man known as “Spider-Man” climbed the virtual wall blocking his way to a title and finally redeemed himself in the process. And for JuneMar “The Kraken” Fajardo, his Best Player of the Conference award has thus been further rewarded with his first PBA Championship.

This often dysfunctional squad that has been loaded with talent but fraught with too many conflicting personalities finally found the one guy who could unite them. By bringing Austria back into the San Miguel Beer fold, team officials finally got the one coach who could get to those personalities and get the best out of them. Championship number 20 is secure. The Philippine Cup belongs to San Miguel and Coach Leo Austria.