(UPDATED) The Meralco Bolts will have a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup, after surviving a late charge by NLEX for a 104-101 triumph on Wednesday at the Don Honorio Ventura State University Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga.
The Bolts led by as much as 20 points but had to weather a blistering fourth-quarter rally by the Road Warriors led by rookie forward Calvin Oftana who exploded for a career-best 34 points.
Oftana's eighth three-pointer of the contest made it a one-possession game with 2.4 seconds to go, 103-101, and off an intentional foul, Meralco center Raymond Almazan made only the first of two free throws.
Fortunately for the Bolts, Bong Quinto was able to tip the ball out of bounds as time expired, denying NLEX one last chance to possibly force an extension.
"The guys just came out and played their hearts out, particularly in the first, I would say 40 minutes of the game," Meralco coach Norman Black said. "The last eight minutes maybe weren't very pretty, but at this point of the season, every win counts."
Veteran guard Allein Maliksi showed the way offensively for Meralco, putting up 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field. Almazan, meanwhile, tallied a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds, while Mac Belo poured in 16 points.
The victory secured for Meralco the second seed in the playoffs, as they improved their record to 8-2. The result also locked the Magnolia Hotshots into the third seed, meaning they will play in a best-of-3 series against whoever ends up as the sixth seed.
The Bolts will conclude their elimination round campaign against rival Barangay Ginebra on Thursday.
Even with the loss, NLEX is already assured of a quarterfinals spot, but the result means that they may drop to the No. 7 spot and will thus be facing a twice-to-beat disadvantage in the playoffs.
"Now we can look forward to our game tomorrow against Ginebra and look forward to the playoffs," said Black.
Belo conspired with rookie Alvin Pasaol to push Meralco to an early lead, and they maintained control of the game through the third quarter. Their advantage ballooned to 20 points, 85-65, off an Anjo Caram layup with three minutes to go in the period.
The Bolts were ahead by 19 points, 101-82, with 17 minutes to go when NLEX reeled off 13 unanswered points. Oftana had five points in the run, including the triple that made it a six-point game, 101-95, with still 1:40 to play.
A floater by Quinto pushed Meralco's lead back to eight, but Oftana drilled another three-pointer on the other end to keep NLEX in the hunt, 103-98, with 26 seconds to go.
Nard Pinto had a chance to slam the door on the Road Warriors, but he missed two free throws off a foul by Kevin Alas, and out of a timeout, NLEX got the ball to Oftana who let Pinto fly by before draining another three-pointer.
NLEX ran out of time, however, as they couldn't get control of the ball after Almazan missed his second free throw.
Raul Soyud had 14 points and 12 rebounds, while JR Quinahan finished with 13 points for the Road Warriors, who concluded their elimination round campaign with a 5-6 win-loss record.
Meralco welcomed back Cliff Hodge and Chris Newsome in the game after the pair missed two weeks due to health and safety protocols. Newsome only played eight minutes, however, and was ejected with 10:38 to play after throwing the ball at NLEX's Tony Semerad.
MERALCO 104 -- Maliksi 22, Pasaol 17, Belo 16, Almazan 13, Caram 10, Quinto 10, Pinto 8, Jackson 2, Hodge 2, Baclao 2, Jamito 2, Newsome 0.
NLEX 101 -- Oftana 34, Soyud 14, Quinahan 13, Trollano 9, IGhalo 8, McAloney 7, Paniamogan 6, Semerad 3, Cruz 3, Miranda 2, Alas 2.
Quarter-scores: 30-20, 65-54, 89-74, 104-101.