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PBA: SMB completes rare feat

SMB coach Leo Austria

Finally the balloons fell, withered and faded now, like a dream doomed to suffer a harsh death before it could turn into reality in front of a crowd of 23,616.

Alaska fought from 21 points down in a gallant effort to deny San Miguel Beer a unique place in unprecedented history, but the defending champions refused to let go, putting down one mighty Aces rally after another in capturing Game 7 of the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup Finals last night, 96-89, and becoming the first team to complete a comeback from a 0-3 deficit in a best-of-7 series to win the title.

San Miguel Beermen

Grand Slam winners in 1989, the Beermen captured their 22nd franchise title and sixth Philippine Cup crown, tying San Mig Super Coffee (Purefoods) for the honor and creating an exclusive spot in PBA folklore all for themselves by ending a string of 12 consecutive championships fueled by 3-0 starts in a best-of-7 showdown.

June Mar Fajardo and Chris Ross each had 21 points to lead SMB, with the playmaking Ross, who kept the Beermen together through adversity in the series, named PBA-Cignal Finals MVP by the PBA Press Corps.

Fajardo, who missed the first three games of the finals with a knee injury when the Beermen went down 0-3 and skipped Game 4 where they denied the Aces a sweep to jumpstart the biggest turnarounds in league history, had 11 points in the third quarter, while Ross, 4 of 6 from 3-point range, had 8 in the fourth.

Together, along with Alex Cabagnot and Arwind Santos, who both hit 3-pointers that broke the backs of a rampaging Alaska rally that brought the Aces back from a 68-47 disadvantage late in the third quarter to within 75-70 and 77-72 behind a punishing full-court press and the 16 fourth quarter points of Chris Banchero and the 10 of Calvin Abueva, keyed the Beermen’s resistance.

Santos delivered another dagger after the one he buried at the hearts of the Aces in a similar Game 7 in last season’s Philippine Cup Finals, giving SMB an 80-72 lead and sparking a decisive 10-3 run capped by a Ross triple, 87-75.

Fajardo grabbed 15 rebounds to seal his remarkable resurgence while Marcio Lassiter, who had 15 points, converting all 10 of his free throws.

The first half that started with a bizarre sequence of timeouts and platoon substitutions by the Aces saw the Beermen hanging on to a 43-38 lead despite a late surge by Alaska from 10 points down on two Ronald Tubid free throws with less than three minutes remaining.

JVee Casio drained a 3-pointer to spark an 8-3 windup and the Aces finished the first 24 minutes on a strong note after calling three straight 30-second timeouts – all mandatory TV breaks – with Game 7 only a second old.

The crowd’s bewilderment grew with every loud buzzer as Alaska assistant coach Topex Robinson signaled for two more consecutive timeouts after the Aces had called for one immediately following a jump ball violation by Arwind Santos.

With the game clock showing 11:59, the Aces warmed up in front of the bench as the Beermen fidgeted. Alaska compounded the confusion created by the unexpected series of timeouts by immediately replacing its starting lineup with the Aces’ first unit.

The strategy apparently backfired as SMB, instead of getting thrown off their rhythm and disrupted by the freeze, stormed ahead, 15-8, and never relinquished the lead.

“I don’t know what’s in their minds, but I think they cost them in the end,” said SMB coach Leo Austria, who picked up his third PBA title.

SAN MIGUEL 96 – Fajardo 21, Ross 21, Lassiter 15, Santos 13, Cabagnot 8, De Ocampo 7, Tubid 7, Espinas 2, Lutz 2, Heruela 0.

ALASKA 89 – Banchero 21, Abueva 16, Baguio 10, Casio 8, Exciminiano 8, Hontiveros 6, Baclao 4, Jazul 4, Thoss 4, Dela Rosa 3, Manuel 3, Dela Cruz 2, Eman 0, Menk 0.

Quarters: 22-16, 43-38, 68-51, 96-89.