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PBA: Reserves lift Aces

Santos and Abueva

Manila, Philippines – Time and again the Alaska Aces laid out an elaborate ruse surrounding their so-called “second unit” in the PBA Philippine Cup Finals, and time and again the San Miguel Beermen fell for it.

Now the championship series is into a winner-take-all Game 7 after San Miguel again ran out of ammunition in the second half after emptying its weapon cache on the Aces’ “starting lineup” in an 87-76 Game 6 loss last Sunday.

This apparent obsession in burying the opposition early and leaving themselves depleted in the end is what ultimately could cost the Beermen the crown they last won 14 years ago.

In Game 1, SMB pounced on Alaska’s first five of Sonny Thoss, Cyrus Baguio, Vic Manuel, Tony dela Cruz and JVee Casio, opening a 27-5 margin in the first quarter before losing steam and eventually going down in flames in overtime, 88-82.

Upon review, Calvin Abueva finished with a team-high 22 points and 10 rebounds, rookie Chris Banchero 16 points and Dondon Hontiveros 15 with 4 three-point shots, all of them coming off the bench. Thoss? He wound up with a grand total of 1 free throw, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 1 turnover in 32:01 minutes. Baguio? – 4 points in 27:43. Dela Cruz? – 2 points in 15:13.

Lesson learned for SMB? Not quite.

After leveling the series at 1-1 with a masterful 100-86 victory in Game 2, the Beermen found themselves ahead, 64-46, entering the fourth quarter of Game 3 after surging in the third. But they threw away everything in the last 12 minutes, getting crushed, 32-6, as the fresher Aces again ran them down and came away with another come-from-behind win, 78-70, for a 2-1 lead in the championship.

Abueva started this time and finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds. But giving Alaska as huge a lift was its “second unit,” with Chris Exciminiano and Hontiveros delivering 8 points apiece, gunner RJ Jasul 7 and Manuel 6 points.

Hontiveros and Exciminiano had 10 points the breakaway fourth quarter while SMB’s starting lineup of June Mar Fajardo, Chris Lutz, Arwind Santos, Marcio Lassiter and rookie Ronald Pascual combined for 4 points in the final frame, the last three of them scoreless.

Even in defeat, Alaska’s ploy snared its victim.

In Game 5, with the series tied, 2-2 following the no-contest Game 4 which SMB handily won, 88-70, as Casio ran a high fever and gasped for breath, the Beermen raced in front, 11-5, before getting reeled in and tied up, 41-all at halftime and 71-all after three quarters.

SMB prevailed eventually, 93-88, for a 3-2 advantage as Fajardo and Santos each had 19 points and 5 blocked shots. But the game saw Abueva back among the Aces “shock troopers” with 24 points and 12 rebounds, Manuel added 13 and Hontiveros and Jasul 9 points apiece.

It was a prelude to what followed in Game 6.

With the scent of a championship in the air and the multi-colored victory balloons waiting to rain down from the Araneta Coliseum catwalk, San Miguel, in a shooting spree reminiscent of its 6 of 13 triples in the first quarter of Game 4, stormed to a 15-2 start, hitting 5 3-pointers, including 3 free throws by a fouled rainbow-shooting Alex Cabagnot.

Unlike in Game 4, however, the Aces were quick to react this time.

As SMB pulled out its starters one after the other late in the first quarter, thinking perhaps that the game was essentially over after Ronald Tubid came off the bench and buried a 3 to make it 18-4 with 4:35 to go, the Aces dispatched Abueva, Hontiveros and Exciminiano to stir things up.

Abueva had 5 points in those 4 minutes, Hontiveros a 4-point play and Exciminiano a driving layup, and in a flash SMB’s lead was down to 23-17.

Hontiveros, a former SMB player, continued the assault in the second quarter, making the Beermen regret ever letting him go by pouring 10 of his 18 points in the period as Alaska went on a 12-0 run to kick off the period in the face of an opponent scrambling too late to bring back its starters.

A Santos 3-pointer tied the game, 28-all, but Hontiveros drilled in one of his own to give the upper hand back to Alaska. Lassiter did wrest the lead for SMB with a triple, but the Aces put the half away – and the game as it turned out – with an 11-2 run.

Saddled with foul trouble in the first quarter, a caged Abueva wouldn’t be a factor the rest of the way. But Manuel sprung into action, coming off the bench with 12 points, 5 in the third when the Aces were keeping the Beermen at bay. Exciminiano, a defensive guard whose mission is to make life miserable for Cabagnot and the erratic Chris Ross, added 8 and Dela Cruz 6 points, the two of them contributing 4 each in the fourth quarter.

Fajardo (2 of 7) and Cabagnot (2 of 11) were starved to 9 and 8 points respectively as starters while Alaska’s “bench” overpowered its non-existent counterpart, 53-14.

Alex Compton, the Aces coach, likes to keep his cards close to his chest to the point of keeping media off-limits to team practices in the Finals and having the entire Alaska lineup surround him and block the TV camera during huddles.

But every now and then he opens up, either by chance or design.

“I know the history behind the Araneta (Coliseum), the Thrilla in Manila was fought here,” Compton said during the post-game interview by way of looking ahead to Game 7 tomorrow. “I wish I can say that I had the master game plan like Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier: the rope-a-dope.”

Although Compton may have had his boxing history a little bit mixed up – Ali conjured up the unforgettable rope-a-dope against George Foreman (not Frazier) in the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire – he nonetheless provided a glimpse of what could be a deliberate plan to let the Beermen flail away to their hearts’ content in the opening quarters, like Big George did, before unleashing a ferocious counter-strike with his “second unit” once SMB is all drained and exhausted.

Games 1, 3 and 6 is proof of that: Alaska’s “starting lineup” absorbed the brunt of SMB’s opening blitz and the “second unit,” which in truth is far more lethal than the first, came in and brought the Aces back into the game before merging with the starters to finish the job.

And all the while the Beermen probably didn’t realize they were actually pitting their feeble second team against Alaska’s formidable first unit in the pivotal second quarter.

Lulled into believing a clever ruse to very close to the end.

Foreman went down on the eighth against Ali back in ‘74. If the rope-a-dope continues to work for Alaska, a punched-out San Miguel could go down in the seventh on Wednesday.