MANILA, Philippines – The San Miguel Beermen are well aware that the target on their backs are bigger than ever as they seek to win the PBA Philippine Cup for a fourth season in a row.
The three-time defending All-Filipino champions opened their campaign with a comfortable 104-96 win over the Phoenix Fuel Masters on Sunday, where their starters unleashed a torrid run in the fourth period to pull away for good.
Still, there were some tough stretches for the Beermen against Phoenix, particularly early in the fourth frame when their turnovers helped the Fuel Masters trim the deficit to just five points, 85-80, with over six minutes left before they re-established control of the game.
"We looked pretty decent out there," said point guard Chris Ross, who had 16 points and nine assists in the win. "But there's a lot to improve."
Indeed, the main takeaway for the Beermen after the game was that while they were happy to open the All-Filipino Cup on a winning note, they are also bracing for a difficult conference as every other team is out to take them down.
"Everyone is going after us," Ross pointed out. "We've won this conference three years in a row, and everyone's beefed up their squad to come after us."
"We know we're going to get everyone's best shot every night," he added.
Leo Austria has impressed this mindset upon his team. The head coach knows very well that this year, there are plenty of teams that can conceivably end San Miguel's dominance in the All-Filipino Cup.
Even in the wake of their win against Phoenix, Austria pointed out that Barangay Ginebra, with its twin towers of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar, looms in the distance. He also worries about the NLEX Road Warriors and the TNT KaTropa.
"Every team, talagang iba ang mindset nila ngayon eh," said Austria. "Nag-build up sila, nagpalalkas sila. Ang battlecry nila is to beat San Miguel."
Thus, it is a source of relief for Austria to see his team -- particularly his starting unit -- respond well in their first game when faced with adversity.
"Every time na may pressure, nagkakaroon ng sense of urgency ang team namin," the coach explained. "They are still hungry for the title."
Indeed, Ross stressed that they are ready for their opponent's best efforts in every game.
"We're prepared for that, we're ready," said the point guard. "We'll try to win as many games as possible."
"As soon as we find our rhythm, I think we'll be fine," added Ross. "We play against ourself out there. But if everyone comes out locked in and on the same page, we're a tough team to beat."
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