MANILA, Philippines – Barangay Ginebra escaped a last-gasp Meralco comeback attempt to come away with a 90-89 victory to earn a share of first place in the 2017 PBA Commissioner's Cup on Sunday at the Ynares Center in Antipolo.
The Gin Kings handed the slumping Bolts their third straight loss of the conference, while winning their third consecutive game to improve to 8-2 and tie the idle Star Hotshots at the top of the team standings.
It was far from an easy victory, however, as Meralco erased an early deficit, held the lead for most of the second and third quarters, then dragged Ginebra into a nip-and-tuck game in the fourth period.
"It came down to one or two shots, and we had one more shot than they did," Ginebra coach Tim Cone said afterwards. "There wasn't much to separate us."
"We played them in the Finals two conferences ago. It was a battle then, and it was a battle tonight," he added.
On the night that the Gin Kings wore their retro 1991 jersey, they displayed the same "never say die" spirit that brought that Ginebra team and several others to championship glory. Sol Mercado scored six points towards the end of the third period to give the Gin Kings a 74-69 lead heading into the final frame, and the two squads battled from that point on.
A tip-in by Cliff Hodge gave Meralco its last lead, 86-84, with 1:43 left to play, before Japeth Aguilar knotted the count at 86 with 1:17 left after corralling the offensive rebound following a missed triple by LA Tenorio.
The Bolts blew a chance to regain the lead when Joe Devance denied Alex Stepheson an easy shot in Meralco's next possession. On the other end, the Gin Kings were quick to make them pay: after Tenorio missed yet another triple, Aguilar again came up with the offensive board and tapped the ball to Devance, who responded with the go-ahead lay-up.
Jared Dillinger misfired on a triple on the other end, and Tenorio drained two clutch free throws to make it a four-point game, 90-86.
Meralco, however, seemed determined to give Ginebra a taste of its own medicine as Hodge knocked down a triple with a shade under seven seconds to go, making it a one-point game. To the astonishment of the mostly pro-Ginebra crowd at the Ynares Center, import Justin Brownlee then proceeded to brick two free throws that could have made it a three-point lead anew.
This time around, Meralco was able to secure the ball after Brownlee's miss. Unfortunately for the Bolts, Chris Newsome's outlet pass to Hodge proved just a tad too strong, as the ball slipped through Hodge's fingers with 2.6 seconds left, allowing Ginebra to escape.
"They took us out of what we like to do," Cone admitted. "They did a really good job of controlling the tempo, making it a grind-out game, and that's good for their import… It turned into a real defensive battle, back-and-forth."
Tenorio and Brownlee each scored 22 points for Ginebra, while Mercado had 14 points, and Aguilar contributed 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Baser Amer had 21 points, eight boards, and four assists for the Bolts, while Dillinger added 15 markers. Stepheson had 18 points and 20 boards, but was also responsible for seven of Meralco's 15 turnovers in the game.
With the victory, Ginebra has a chance to secure one of the Top 2 spots that carries with it a twice-to-beat edge should they defeat Mahindra in their final elimination round game. Meralco, meanwhile, dropped to 7-4, and will most likely play in a best-of-3 quarterfinals series.
Ginebra 90 - Tenorio 22, Brownlee 22, Mercado 14, Aguilar 11, Thompson 9, Devance 6, Ferrer 2, Mariano 2, Ellis 2, Caguioa 0, Marcelo 0, Taha 0.
Meralco 89 - Amer 21, Stepheson 18, Dillinger 15, Newsome 13, Hodge 13, Nabong 4, Daquioag 3, Chua 2, Yeo 0, Uyloan 0, Hugnatan 0.
Quarters: 22-24, 42-48, 74-69, 90-89
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