MANILA, Philippines – A year after a breakthrough appearance in the PBA finals, the Magnolia Hotshots believe they are better equipped to take down the dynastic San Miguel Beer squad this time around.
Magnolia ended a four-year finals drought when they advanced to the championship series of the 2018 PBA Philippine Cup against San Miguel. They shocked the Beermen in Game 1, thanks to a brilliant effort from Ian Sangalang, but they had no answer for defending champions the rest of the way.
SMB went on to win in five games, with June Mar Fajardo putting up a monster 42-point, 20-rebound effort to close out Magnolia in Game 5, 108-99, in overtime.
Their finals heartbreak in the Philippine Cup turned out to be the beginning for the Hotshots. They ended the 2018 season on a high note, ruling the Governors' Cup for their first championship in four years.
Coach Chito Victolero believes that the experiences they gained over the past year have prepared them for their rematch against San Miguel in the finals of the 2019 PBA Philippine Cup.
"I think nag-mature din kami," said Victolero during Monday's press conference, not even 24 hours after outlasting Rain or Shine in a low-scoring Game 7 in the semifinals to clinch the finals ticket.
"We gained a lot of experience from the Philippine Cup last year, and last conference, we won a championship," he noted. "I think malaking bagay 'yun, the experience and the maturity ng grupo na ito."
Magnolia added just one player – rookie Michael Calisaan – but all their key players stayed put. Their start to the conference was shaky as they won just one of their first five games, but still sneaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed.
The Hotshots showed their championship pedigree in the quarterfinals when they ousted perennial rival, the third-seeded Barangay Ginebra Kings, in a three-game series. They went the distance once more in the semis, falling behind 0-2 to Rain or Shine before pulling off a gritty, 63-60 overtime win in Game 7.
Victolero won't deny that his team is feeling the effects of the long series. San Miguel had wrapped up its own semifinals series in five games, giving the Beermen precious time to recover from what was a highly physical affair with Phoenix. The Hotshots, in contrast, only have two games to rest.
"Yung aming legs and energy, apektado," Victolero admitted. "But tomorrow is also a big factor. Malaking bagay sa amin na makakapag-pahinga pa kami. I think maayos naman kami. I think we're ready by Wednesday."
Ready they will be, but Victolero also knows that for all the maturity and experience gained by his team, they will still be the underdogs against San Miguel. The Beermen's famed starters are still there, headlined by Fajardo, and they also added a pair of new stars in Christian Standhardinger and Terrence Romeo.
"Humina sila," Victolero joked.
"Of course, we know naman na it's a big factor, si Christian at Terrence," he said. "Talagang malaking tulong 'yung dalawa sa kanila, compared sa last year na wala sila. Wala kaming magagawa – we just have to prepare hard."
"We know we're the underdogs," he stressed, adding that they have to figure out a game plan for the entire San Miguel team and not just Fajardo.
Victolero is keeping his faith on all that his team has gained in the past year, and is banking on their hunger to topple the powerhouse San Miguel squad that has ruled the All-Filipino for four years in a row.
"Sabi ko nga sa mga players ko, as long as maganda ang chemistry namin, we have a chance," he said. "Ang tanong ko sa kanila, sa grupo namin ngayon, ilan ba ang nag-champion ng All-Filipino? Less than one-fourth lang."
"Nagkasundo kami na we will help each other to have a chance to win," added Victolero, who has never won the All-Filipino either as a player or as a coach. "Isang malaking motivation sa amin 'yun."
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.