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PBA: San Miguel starts title defense without Fajardo

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Game Today
(Smart Araneta)
5 p.m. – San Miguel vs Alaska

The dream rematch may have just turned into a nightmare – for the San Miguel Beermen.

Dealt a huge blow with the knee injury of June Mar Fajardo, reigning champion San Miguel kicks off defense of the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup crown against the vengeful Alaska Aces today in Game 1 of the best-of-seven title series at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Game time is at 5 p.m., with SMB walking into the court with a big limp after Fajardo, the Beermen’s back-to-back MVP winner and No. 1 player, hurt his left knee in their series-clinching Game 6 semifinal victory over Rain or Shine last Friday.

Fajardo crumpled to the floor and clutched his knee in agony with eight minutes left in the third quarter and SMB trailing, 52-47. RoS forward Jireh Ibanes, who came into contact with Fajardo during the rebound play, insisted he was jockeying for position against the 6-foot-10 center with no intention to cause harm.

“I just tried to box him out. I did not expect that was going to happen, I hope he recovers fast for the Finals and I hope he does well,” Ibañes said after the game. “I’m so sorry it happened, and hopefully it isn’t serious.”

Contrite as he was, video footage appeared to show, however, Ibanes wrapping his right foot on an unwary Fajardo and then backing his hip on the left thigh of the big fella, who had his back to Ibañes and the basket, causing him to turn his knee badly and fall.

“Ni-lock yung paa ni June Mar tapos inupuan,” said a team insider.

No whistle was blown and SMB coach Leo Austria has gone on the record to say the contact should have at least merited a foul.

“Flagrant pa nga yon e,” he said. “Nakita naman natin sa video na extended talaga yung tuhod ni Ibañes.”

MRI tests have been done on Fajardo’s knee but no official report on his condition or availability to suit up for Game 1 has been released by SMB management as of press time.

“No concrete findings yet,” said PBA chairman and SMB governor Robert Non. “I just hope na worst na nangyari e na-hyperextend lang yung knee niya.”

Sources claim, however, to overhear Fajardo telling team officials that he heard a popping sound at the same time his knee buckled, raising the possibility of torn ligaments.

“It’s not a good sign,” the source said. “Balita ko nga, maga pa yung tuhod niya hanggang ngayon e.”

Without Fajardo, SMB will be under pressure to find others who can fill up his double-double offensive contribution against the well-rested Aces, who advanced by disposing off Globalport in five games in their semis bracket.

More significantly, the Beermen may have lost their huge defensive advantage inside, a void backup centers Jay-R Reyes and Yancy de Ocampo would find difficult to fill.

The rematch of last season’s Philippine Cup Finals, which SMB won in seven games, could likely turn into a struggle for the Beermen minus Fajardo since the Aces, with their Bruise Brothers Calvin Abueva and Vic Manuel), along with veteran center Sonny Thoss, are expected to bring the fight inside where SMB is now most vulnerable.

Alaska coach Alex Compton insists the Aces have moved on from last season’s heartbreaker, and maybe they had judging from their 103-97 victory over the Beermen in their elimination round meeting last Dec. 16.

Five Alaska players, led by Thoss, struck in double figures to negate Fajardo’s 40 points, 20 rebounds super-performance, demonstrating that the Aces may now have what it takes to subdue the Beermen even on Fajardo’s most explosive night.

Outrebounding SMB, 50-41, the Aces also forced 19 turnovers while shutting down Marcio Lassiter (0 of 5), Chris Ross (1 of 4) and Ronald Tubid (2 of 5) with the most impregnable pressure defense in the league.

With Fajardo present in their lone Philippine Cup encounter, the Beermen absorbed a beating. Without him, the Aces might just turn this series into a rout.