Stunned as he was that Arwind Santos hit that huge 3-pointer with 43 seconds left in Game 7 of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals Wednesday, what truly astounded Alaska Coach Alex Compton was that the San Miguel Beer star still had enough strength left in him to launch the biggest shot of the championship series.
Running on an almost empty gas tank after playing 46 out of 48 minutes in the winner-take-all match, Santos summoned one last ounce of reserved energy to soar beyond the reach of Calvin Abueva and bury a dagger 3-point shot that lifted the Beermen past the Aces, 80-78, for SMB’s first PH Cup title in 14 years.
It also erased the stigma of two major meltdowns during the series where the Beermen blew 20-point plus leads in Games 1 and 3.
“To have the legs to make that shot, that’s tough,” Compton said during the post-game interview. “He’s a jump shooter and didn’t take a set shot.”
Scoreless after pouring 18 of his 22 points in the first three quarters, with three consecutive triples coming in the opening period, Santos drifted along the right wing after Alaska point guard JVee Casio missed a 3 earlier and RJ Jasul lost the ball at the baseline in a fierce struggle for possession with Santos.
The 2013 MVP took a pass from Alex Cabagnot but wearily sent it back with Abueva, a fellow son of Pampanga and Santos’ main rival for the PBA Press Corps-Finals MVP trophy, all over him.
Cabagnot then made things happen with the shot clock winding down, driving against Chris Exciminiano from top of the keyhole and drawing Abueva, who had sagged towards the middle, to him before firing a pass back at Santos.
At that point 4 of 10 from 3-point range, having missed a trey with 3 minutes remaining and Alaska ahead, 76-72, Santos rose and released a high arcing rainbow a fraction of a second before Abueva darted back and put a hand to his face.
When the shot fell and bedlam erupted, Santos raised his right arm and pointed a taped index finger to the source of the divine in intervention.
“Nung pumasok yung tira… hindi ko mapaliwanag. Siguro may tulong na din nga ng Diyos,” Santos said.
Compton felt a lesser factor than divinity was at work.
“To make that shot, that’s guts. He deserves a lot of credit,” said Compton. “That’s a huge shot in a Game Seven of an all-Filipino series.”
Compton would have loved to say the same of his Aces center Sonny Thoss after Alaska gained possession with 2.8 seconds to go and SMB ahead, 80-78, on Santos’ free throw 16 seconds before.
But Thoss, who schooled SMB center June Mar Fajardo on the finer points of the up-and-under move at the height on an 11-0 Aces run, bailed out on a game-tying attempt, deferring to Casio who had to hurriedly get off a tightly-contested 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and missed badly.
“Beterano kasi si Arwind kaya talagang ititira niya yon,” said Barangay Ginebra San Miguel alternate governor Alfrancis Chua who sat behind the SMB bench. “Pero ganoon pa man, nakaka-bilib pa rin kasi ang layo nong binitawan e.”
Just as astonishing was Alaska engineering another monumental comeback, this time from 23 points in the second quarter. Abueva was a man possessed at the start of the second half, pouring 13 of his 23 points in the third period where he nearly outscored the entire SMB team and Alaska went on a 32-14 binge.
An 11-point run to start the fourth was all it took for Alaska to get over the hump, reeling in the Beermen and storming ahead, 74-68.
In apparent desperation to give Cabagnot and Santos the briefest of breathers, SMB sent in from the cold backup point guard Jeric Fortuna and rookie Ronald Pascual, but the Aces’ pressure defense quickly pounced on the two.
The two SMB veterans were immediately called back to action with 3 minutes left and it was here, when all the chips were down and their backs were against the wall, that the Beermen, behind Santos, Fajardo and Chris Lutz, made a gallant last stand and delivered.
SMB fighting back from the corner in the 12th and last round, Goliath getting up after being felled by David, the complacent privileged rising to the challenge of the courageous underdog – that’s how the Beermen pulled it off in those breathless dying seconds when life and death tethered in the balance.
Though Alaska’s 15 missed free throws was critical (SMB went 16 of 23), what really hurt the Aces in the end was their failure to find someone to put the game away with one truly defining play, the way Arwind Santos did.
Abueva faded after putting Alaska on top, 74-68, with 4 minutes left while Thoss had his final basket at the1:34 mark as the Aces hang on to a 78-74 edge.
They never were to score again, however, as the Beermen completed a 6-0 windup, 4 coming from a guy who had the guts, the talent and the endurance to take charge and lead the way when the path was at its darkest.
San Miguel kept the flames burning till the end. The Alaska Aces, on the other hand, lost their torchbearer before they completed the journey back to the light.