Magnolia, TNT keen to end PBA championship droughts

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 20 2021 08:43 AM

TNT won their lone elimination round game against the Magnolia Hotshots. PBA Media Bureau
TNT won their lone elimination round game against the Magnolia Hotshots. PBA Media Bureau

MANILA, Philippines -- One team will end a long wait for an All-Filipino crown when the TNT Tropang GIGA and the Magnolia Hotshots face off in the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup Finals, starting on Wednesday at the Don Honorio Ventura State University Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga.

Before Barangay Ginebra won last year, the Philippine Cup was dominated by the San Miguel Beermen and their powerhouse core anchored by six-time Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo.

But TNT booted out the Beermen in the semifinals, netting them another opportunity to end their PBA title drought. The Tropang GIGA had lost in last year's championship series to Ginebra in five games.

"For the team, talagang gutom na gutom sila, they're very hungry (for the title)," TNT coach Chot Reyes said. "It's been, I think, six years since the last championship ng franchise, ng TNT."

"In that regard, in terms of hunger, if you will ask us -- gutom na gutom," he said.

TNT last won a PBA championship in the 2015 Commissioner's Cup -- a long drought for one of the league's premier franchises. Their most recent All-Filipino crown came all the way in the 2012-13 season.

"Sobrang special kung makuha namin 'to, kasi wala pa akong championship (sa PBA)," said TNT guard Roger Pogoy. "First time ko sana 'to, kung ibibigay ni Lord."

"Six years na rin kaming 'di nagcha-champion," added veteran Jayson Castro. "Lagi na lang Finals, then laging natatalo. Hopefully this time, makuha namin."

Comparatively, the Hotshots have a shorter drought between titles: they ruled the 2018 PBA Governors' Cup. But their last All-Filipino title came in the 2013-14 season, wherein they would win the Grand Slam under the guidance of Tim Cone.

Moreover, Magnolia has endured some painful moments in the Philippine Cup in recent seasons. They made it to the All-Filipino Finals in 2018 and 2019, only to lose each time to San Miguel. 

Their defeat in 2019 was particularly painful, as they lost in seven games, with the deciding game going down the wire.

"One basket away lang kami to win the All-Filipino championship," recalled Paul Lee, who had 11 points, six rebounds, and six assists in the 72-71 loss.

"This is our third time na magta-try," said Magnolia coach Chito Victolero. "Hopefully, maka over the hump na kami sa Finals."

The Finals will be an interesting showdown of two teams that made strong moves in the offseason to augment their rosters.

For TNT, they added rookie star Mikey Williams, who has emerged as their leading scorer. They also got Kelly Williams back from retirement, after the former PBA MVP skipped the 2020 Philippine Cup. But their most significant addition might just be Reyes, who returned to coach the team after leaving TNT in 2012.

TNT head coach Chot Reyes huddles with the Tropang GIGA. PBA Media Bureau
TNT head coach Chot Reyes huddles with the Tropang GIGA. PBA Media Bureau

"For us to win a championship, kailangan namin na we play as a team talaga, hindi individual. Siguro, 'yun din, noong pagdating ni Coach Chot, 'yun ang No. 1 na ginawa niya talaga," said Castro.

Magnolia, for its part, retained the core that made it to the Finals of the 2018 and 2019 All-Filipino conferences. Lee, Mark Barroca, Ian Sangalang, and Rafi Reavis are still there, and are still playing major roles for the team.

But in the offseason, they added "The Beast" in Calvin Abueva, and Victolero admits that his impact has been massive.

"It's a blessing na napunta siya sa amin," Victolero said of Abueva, who is the leading candidate for Best Player of the Conference. "'Di ko inaasahan 'yun, so parang bumagsak (galing) sa langit."

"It changed a lot sa journey namin sa conference na 'to," he added. "Walang makakapag-deny na he's a big factor sa success namin."

There were risks in signing Abueva, who was just one conference removed from a yearlong suspension stemming from on-court incidents involving players from TNT and Blackwater. But he has proven to be a superb addition for Magnolia, fitting seamlessly into their defensive schemes and forming a tremendous partnership with Sangalang in the frontcourt.

"The Beast" has been a massive factor in Magnolia's success. PBA Media Bureau

With both teams raring to end their All-Filipino title droughts, the series now becomes a matter of preparation and execution. TNT won their lone elimination round encounter, 83-76, but the championship round promises to be an entirely different situation for both squads. 

"We have some pieces," said Victolero. "And hopefully, 'yung pagiging gutom ng mga batang 'to, kahit papaano makatulong din. Tulong-tulong lang kami para ma-achieve namin ang goal namin."

"We're trying to compete against Magnolia, and we're going to try to come out and be better than them in a game to game basis," said Reyes, for his part. "In the end, it's how both teams execute on the floor."

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