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One name could have made a difference for the Alaska Aces in Game 6 of the Oppo-PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals after they had cut a 3-0 Rain or Shine advantage to 3-2 with victories in Games 4 and 5 – Vic Manuel.
As the Aces’ lone legitimate post-up guy, Manuel suiting up for Game 6 last Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum would have given Alaska guaranteed offense inside the paint where the Elasto Painters held just a 38-32 edge.
But the right calf strain he suffered in the quarterfinal playoffs against Tropang TNT proved resistant to accelerated healing and he stood helpless in street clothes as E-Painters center Raymond Almazan and forward JR Quiñahan ran wild with 29 points combined.
Averaging 13.6 points per game early in the conference with 4.55 rebounds, Manuel, who had 20 points on 8 of 9 from the floor when Alaska, with Shane Edwards scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, destroyed RoS with Antoine Wright, 128-102, in the elimination, would have covered up for center Sonny Thoss (6 points in 19:03 minutes) and the cameo appearance of Noy Baclao (4:18 minutes) and the still hurting Eric Menk (calf injury), who Aces coach Alex Compton risked for just 52 seconds before pulling him out.
It is here that Alaska and long-time nemesis San Miguel Beer parted ways after both journeying into the unknown this season. One had a savior to fall back on when survival becomes a life-and-death situation, while the other, sadly, had none.
With center June Mar Fajardo sitting out Games 1, 2 and 3 of the Philippine Cup Finals against Alaska three months ago, the Beermen fell behind 0-3 in the best-of-7 series. Fajardo, who hyper-extended his knee in the semifinals against Rain or Shine, in fact didn’t even bother to dress up for Game 4 when he accepted his Best Player of the Conference award with a slight limp, promising instead to come back for Game 5, pain or not, if his teammates can somehow avert a sweep without him.
The Beermen did in overtime at the Philsports Arena, coming back from 11 points down with three minutes remaining.
The rest is PBA history as Fajardo, recovered and rested, returned as he promised and laid waste to the Aces, debuting in the finals with 13 points and 4 rebounds in Game 5, with 16 and 7 in Game 6, and a whopping 21 points and 15 boards in the winner-take-all Game 7, all rousing victories as SMB became the first team to complete a monumental reversal from such a huge deficit.
It was exactly what the Aces needed when the E-Painters were starting to break the game open in the first quarter where Paul Lee, angered by a second foul called against him, drilled in four straight emotion-fueled 3-pointers while shouting to close out the period and send RoS on its way to a second franchise title.
But Vic Manuel, as much as he wanted to, couldn’t do a Willis Reed, much less a June Mar Fajardo. With doctors calling off his chances to return for the championship, the former PSBA Jaguar could only watch as his team get slaughtered yet again – their fourth loss in four final appearances.
After Lee hit a dagger step-back jumper from deep left corner to give RoS a 101-84 lead with 3:20 remaining, Alaska called time to plot a last-gasp fightback.
From his seat, Manuel rose and sought out from among the crowd at courtside someone who had called out his name. He then winced and shook his head at the obvious question.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Lee, whose momentum from his shot had carried him all the way to the vicinity of the Alaska bench, was wrapped in a tight bear hug from Jeff Chan and the two of them started dancing the jig while the Aces huddled. Manuel gave the two celebrating RoS players a quick glance, pursed his lip and looked away.
Maybe he could have willed himself to dress up for Game 7, if his teammates had pulled it off in Game 6. But the E-Painters have seen such catastrophic meltdown before and were not about to go down the same road.
Vic Manuel sat and waited, but the call to make a difference never came.