Forced to rally, surprisingly, from 12 points down early in the fourth quarter, with Vic Manuel pouring 14 of his career-tying 24 points, Alaska ultimately imposed its will on shorthanded San Miguel in the last three minutes to take Game 1 of the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup Finals, 100-91, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is tomorrow, 7 p.m., also at the Big Dome, with the biggest question in the championship still unanswered: “Will June Mar Fajardo be healthy enough to play?”
The injured back-to-back MVP was a no-show for the Beermen in the opener of the finals, and his absence had dire consequences.
Minus the 6-foot-10 Fajardo, who hyper-extended his left knee in a collision with Jireh Ibanes in Game 6 of their semifinal matchup with Rain or Shine Friday, SMB got mangled under the offensive glass, 23 points to four, and in rebounds, 48-28.
The 28-rebound drought went down as the lowest in a Finals game in PBA history. Alaska also picked up 24 points from 18 SMB turnovers while giving up just 15 points.
“Looking at the stats, it was really hard for us to win,” said SMB coach Leo Austria. “We really missed June Mar.”
Yancy de Ocampo, the forgotten 6-foot-9 back-up center, valiantly tried to fill the gap with 18 points, eight in the last 12 minutes where SMB shocked Alaska by opening a 78-66 lead on De Ocampo’s 3-pointer with 11 minutes remaining.
His seven rebounds couldn’t compensate for the 26 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks average of Fajardo this conference, however, not to mention his hulking presence inside and the intangible confidence he gives SMB shooters to fire away without fear.
Fajardo’s official status remains a mystery, with team officials saying he could be suiting up for Game 3 on Friday in Lucena City.”
“It’s better for June Mar to rest rather than come here,” said the Beermen team manager Gee Abanilla a few hours before Game 1 of the series with the Aces.
“The initial finding is ACL and PCL are intact. Let’s all continue to hope and pray for June Mar’s recovery,” said Abanilla.
In the semifinals against ROS, Fajardo averaged 31.33 points, 15.67 rebounds, 1.67 assists and 2.67 blocks, including a 40-20 performance (points-rebounds) in Game 3.
Overall, the native of Cebu averages 26 points, 14.82 rebounds, 1.65 assists and 2.12 shot blocks this conference and is the leading contender for his fourth BPC.
Alex Cabagnot had 20 points for SMB and fellow gunner Marcio Lassiter added 19. But bone-weary Arwind Santos failed to get anything going, finishing with four points on 2 of 11 from the floor before fouling out with three minutes left just as the Aces, behind Manuel, Chris Banchero and Cyrus Baguio, made their decisive move.
“Arwind is just so tired after the Rain or Shine series,” said Austria. “But we will need him next time or else we’ll be zero-two.”
Banchero had seven of his 15 points, including the go-ahead three-point play, in the last period where the Aces used a 13-3 run over a three-minute stretch to wrest the lead, 91-88. Cabagnot came back with a triple to tie the game with 1:57 remaining before SMB went scoreless the rest of the way.
“They were able to handle the lost of the most dominant player in the nation, and we didn’t – for 40 or 43 minutes,” Alaska coach Alex Compton said. “But we were able to get some stops, finally, thank goodness.” (With a report from Waylon P. Galvez)
ALASKA 100 – Manuel 24, Baguio 16, Banchero 15, Abueva 12, Exciminiano 6, Jazul 6, Casio 5, Hontiveros 5, Menk 5, Thoss 4, Baclao 2, Dela Rosa 0.
SAN MIGUEL 91 – Cabagnot 20, Lassiter 19, De Ocampo 18, Tubid 13, Espinas 11, Arana 4, Santos 4, Ross 2, Lutz 0, Semerad 0.
Quarters: 11-4, 42-38, 75-66, 100-91