MANILA, Philippines -- After struggling for most of the conference, Ginebra forward Prince Caperal played his best game of the PBA Philippine Cup just when the Gin Kings needed it most.
Caperal, last season's Most Improved Player, scored a conference-high 19 points in Ginebra's 95-85 triumph over Phoenix Super LPG on Saturday that allowed them to secure the eighth seed in the playoffs.
Defending champion Ginebra, after enduring an up-and-down campaign in the elimination round, managed to clinch a quarterfinal spot and will play top-seeded TNT Tropang GIGA.
Caperal's contribution was badly needed by a Ginebra side that was missing All-Star forward Japeth Aguilar due to a knee injury, as well as do-it-all guard Scottie Thompson (health and safety protocols).
"Sa akin lang, 'yung lagi namang sinasabi ni coach sa amin pagka may down na player, like next man up mentality," said Caperal, who made eight of 19 shots including three three-pointers against the Fuel Masters.
"Ever since naman, 'yun na 'yung mantra ko eh. 'Pag may down, step up," he added. "'Yun naman 'yung ano ng team namin, tungkol saan 'yung team namin. It's about the next man up mentality kami palagi, 'yun lang."
After coming off the bench throughout the elimination round, Caperal started against Phoenix Super LPG -- a move that paid dividends for head coach Tim Cone.
"We started Prince for the first time this game. I told him yesterday I was gonna give him the start. I told him we need to find a way to get your confidence going, so we're gonna start you in the basketball game," the coach said.
Caperal made sure to maximize the opportunity and repay the trust given to him. The sweet-shooting forward had emerged as a scoring option for Ginebra last season and had some strong games in the playoffs, particularly against the Meralco Bolts in the semifinals.
But he slumped massively in the eliminations of this conference. Entering the do-or-die showdown against Phoenix Super LPG, Caperal had been scoreless in their past three games and played just limited minutes.
"I know past few games, I've been struggling, pero like, si Coach lagi pa rin naman akong kinakausap na kung ano dapat gawin," said Caperal. "Shoutout na lang sa mga teammates ko and sa mga coaches ko. Nag-struggle ako pero andiyan pa rin sila sa akin, may tiwala pa rin."
That his best performance came during a do-or-die game was just a bonus to Caperal.
"Laro lang talaga ako. Like, bigay lang lagi 'yung best ko, kahit elimination pa 'yan, kahit anong laro," he said. "'Di ko na masyadong inisip na do or die, basta kung ako lang, lalaro ko lang kung ano 'yung dapat kong ilaro."
The Gin Kings will now need consistency from Caperal, as they are set to miss Aguilar for the rest of the conference due to his injury.
Despite being defending champions, they will be the underdogs against TNT in the quarterfinals, as the Tropang GIGA have been dominant throughout the elimination round.
When they played last Sept. 12, TNT grabbed an 88-67 triumph over Ginebra.
"Pagdating mo ng playoffs, ibang ano na 'yan," Caperal assured. "Zero-zero na ulit 'yun. Kumbaga, mag-ready na lang ulit kami."