The Blackwater Elite’s days as a footnote in history are over.
After finishing 12th and last in all three conferences of their maiden season, the expansion Elite finally made it to the quarterfinals yesterday by ousting fellow newcomer Mahindra Enforcers in a thrilling do-or-die, 108-99, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
No. 10 Blackwater will face No. 3 Rain or Shine in the playoffs, with the Elasto Painters, whose costly loss to the NLEX Road Warriors last Saturday deprived them of an outright seat in the best-of-7 semifinals, holding a twice-to-beat advantage in the two-phase quarters.
No. 11 Mahindra joins the 12th-placed Meralco Bolts at the sideline.
That the Elite will march on to the playoffs at the expense of the Enforcers was deservedly just in light of the immediate impact Mahindra (formerly Kia Motors) had on the PBA last year, largely due to the presence of playing-coach Manny Pacquiao and the Kia franchise’s 80-66 inaugural day victory over Blackwater in front of a record crowd of 50,000 at the Philippine Arena back in October 2014.
But Blackwater was made to fully understand what making the playoffs entailed, with the Elite breathless until the last 35 seconds when Mike Cortez’s free throws gave them a 106-99 lead.
“I have to give it to my teammates; they made this possible,” said Cortez, who unloaded 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds as he put behind him the trade that brought him to Blackwater from Meralco during the off-season.
While Cortez’s performance wasn’t exactly payback for getting dealt, Reil Cervantes’ had icy revenge all over his 24-point effort.
Swapped by Mahindra for Alex Nuyles, Cervantes, off the bench, struck hardest when his former team was waging a comeback from 20 points in the second half, burying four of his six three-pointers in the fourth quarter in thwarting the Enforcers.
Blackwater coach Leo Isaac savored their first playoff appearance but at the same time tempered expectations.
“We’re excited because we’re finally in the quarterfinals,” said Isaac, who played five seasons from 1986 to 1991 with Ginebra San Miguel alongside the legendary Robert Jaworski. “As an expansion team, all we can do is compete and try to get better and improve.”
Asked about his thoughts on facing coach Yeng Guiao and Rain or Shine in the playoffs, Isaac gave away little.
“No message for them,” he said. “We’ll just leave it to our preparation and do our best, maybe give them a hard time. But if they give us a winning line, then we’ll grab it.”
Blackwater will have to beat Rain or Shine twice to advance to the next phase – a knockout game with another playoff winner for a spot in the semis.
Mahindra was within, 104-99, with 50 seconds remaining after point guard LA Revilla scored inside against Cortez and Elite backup center Frank Golla. Revilla then forced a five-second inbound violation on Cortez, giving the Enforcers a golden opportunity to steal the sudden death.
After a timeout, a defensive switch atop the key matched Revilla with Golla with the shot clock winding down. With the advantage of speed against the 6-5 former Ateneo player, the ex-De La Salle star opted for a 3-point shot that rattled out, allowing Blackwater to exhale.
Blackwater overcame a slim first quarter deficit by opening the second with a 13-3 run as Carlo Lastimosa started to heat up from a scoreless initial 12-minute period.
From 23-28 after Mark Yee gave Mahindra a five-point edge with two free throws to kick off the second period, went on a 13-1 salvo to grab a 36-29 advantage en route to a 51-42 halftime lead.
BLACKWATER 108 – Cortez 30, Cervantes 24, Gamalinda 16, Lastimosa 14, Dela Cruz 8, Erram 8, Ballesteros 4, Canada 2, Reyes 2, Golla 0.
MAHINDRA 99 – Ramos 22, Digregorio 20, Revilla 15, Canaleta 12, Dehesa 12, Yee 7, Guinto 6, Pinto 2, Webb 2, Pascual 1, Bagatsing 0, Hubalde 0, Laure 0, Paredes 0.
Quarters: 23-26, 51-42, 80-61, 108-99
GINEBRA 91 – Slaughter 27, Aguilar 17, Mercado 12, Devance 8, Ellis 8, Tenorio 6, Caguioa 5, Salva 4, Cruz 2, Thompson 2, Helterbrand 0, Marcelo 0.
TNT 84 – Rosario 22, Fonacier 14, Castro 13, Carey 10, Williams 9, Reyes 6, Aban 4, Tautuaa 4, Miranda 2, Rosser 0, Seigle 0.
Quarters: 25-21, 45-40, 70-56, 91-84