MANILA, Philippines -- The conference did not end as they wanted but the Meralco Bolts still made plenty of progress in the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup, much to the pride of head coach Norman Black.
The Bolts earned a breakthrough win against archrivals Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals, then pushed powerhouse San Miguel Beer to seven games in the semis. Their comeback in Game 6 was stunning, with Meralco erasing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force a decider.
The Beermen ultimately eliminated them, however, with June Mar Fajardo having his way in Game 7 to power San Miguel to a 100-89 victory.
"I thought San Miguel really played good defense tonight. They were very solid defensively, and we caught June Mar on a really good night; he was pretty dominating," said Black, after Fajardo carved up their interior defense for 29 points and 14 rebounds.
"We really didn't match up well with him tonight, physically. But I thought they played really, really well. Give credit where credit is due," he added.
The result was disappointing, Black admits, but he cannot fault the effort given by his players. He pointed out that virtually no one believed that the Bolts would reach the semis of the All-Filipino, despite their streak of strong performances in past conferences.
"I'm a realist. I read what you write, and I think at the beginning of this conference, if you would have said that Meralco would be in this situation, none of you would have said that, probably," said the multi-titled coach.
"So, in a lot of ways, we are moving forward. We're getting better. We're certainly competitive, that's for sure. We can beat any team on any given night," he added.
"I'll be quite honest with you -- I'm very proud of my players, what they accomplished in this conference," he stressed.
Aaron Black emerged as a star in the series, sparking Meralco's comeback in Game 6 by scoring his team's final 11 points. Chris Newsome was his usual steady self, and Cliff Hodge continued to provide the energy for the Bolts. In Game 7, Hodge had 23 points and eight rebounds in an attempt to keep Meralco within striking distance of San Miguel.
Fajardo was simply unstoppable, however. The six-time Most Valuable Player made 12 of his 18 field goals in the game, hitting some key layups down the stretch to keep the Bolts at bay.
Black admits that the series against San Miguel shows that they still need to keep shoring up their frontline, even as he hailed the efforts of Raymond Almazan and Hodge.
"We do have problems with the really big, strong teams over a seven-game series. The shorter series actually favor us, because we can knock guys off in a best-of-3, things like that, even best-of-5. But as the series gets longer, we don't seem to have the depth of some of the favored teams like San Miguel," he said.
Still, that they forced the Beermen to seven games gives Black reason to be optimistic heading into the PBA Commissioner's Cup, where they will welcome a former NBA player in Johnny O'Bryant III as their import.
O'Bryant, listed at 6-foot-9, previously played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets, and was present on Wednesday night to watch the Meralco-San Miguel game.
"We just have to move on to the next conference and hope that Johnny O'Bryant will be able to fill in some of our weaknesses going into the next conference," said Black.
"We normally do well when the imports come in. So if we can be strong enough to compete in the All-Filipino and then we can get a good import, that can make the difference and get us over the hump," he also said.