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Despite loss, Beermen driven by injured Fajardo

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San Miguel’s row looked noticeably smaller after the pre-finals call-outs prior to Game 1’s tip-off in the PBA Philippine Cup finals Sunday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

The Beermen shook hands with the Alaska Aces at centercourt as part of the tradition, but this time without the usual 6-foot-11 presence always part of it.

It was odd not seeing June Mar Fajardo surface out of the San Miguel dugout the way the behemoth always used to, as he was taken to the hospital prior to the final buzzer of San Miguel’s win over Rain or Shine last Friday night.

Fajardo sustained an apparent knee injury and everyone, regardless of fandom, gasped collectively when Fajardo clutched his left knee and grimaced in pain.

Whether a Beermen fan, an Elasto Painters fan, a Gilas Pilipinas fan, or simply a Philippine basketball fan appreciative of talent and greatness, it was disheartening to see one of the pillars of Philippine hoops today fall in a disturbing manner.

Being the standard among bigs today, seeing Fajardo missing the game is like having the hoop gods take away a huge part of basketball.

“When we saw June Mar go down, it was tough for us. But we know we had to gather around and we felt we have to step up,” Marcio Lassiter said.

But head coach Leo Austria had always preached about sacrifice among his players. As he had previously shared in the past, Fajardo is the focal point of the team but his strength is his teammates. Having everyone contribute makes San Miguel even more unstoppable.

The tenacious Beermen roared back against the Elasto Painters with completeness and sense of urgency.

“Right away, everyone played great and it was a team effort. That’s just how it has to be. A guy comes down, another one steps up,” Lassiter said Friday.

Gabby Espinas scored six straight points in the third period, then Arwind Santos and Marcio Lassiter took charge in the final frame. San Miguel played with more flair and aggressiveness, having the killer instinct to finish the series.PBA41 PH Cup Finals - Espinas

Without Fajardo, reciprocating his greatness for all the hard work he has done throughout the Beermen’s run is the best thing his teammates can accomplish, and they did Friday night.

“Yun na lang yung maitutulong mo sa team. So i-alay mo na lang yung game para sa kanya,” Gabby Espinas said.

“The players, nag-step up sila eh. Si June Mar, they always rely on him. But know, without June Mar, we are still capable of winning a champion but it is really hard. Let’s see what will happen,” Austria added.

The Beermen hardly felt the absence of Fajardo anew when they battled the Aces Sunday in the finals series opener. Yancy de Ocampo took the starting spot and played better than ever. Alex Cabagnot was also locked in and finals mode. Marcio Lassiter exposed mismatches. Gabby Espinas and David Semerad received quality minutes and delivered.

San Miguel worked freely on offense, as players showed what they were all capable of. When Fajardo was still in tow, the Beermen have to stick to the system but without him, things opened up and allowed the players to reactivate the skills or capabilities long part of their respective arsenals.PBA41 PH Cup Finals - Santos

“Without June Mar, I think the confidence of those players who plays his position will go up. Yung kumpiyansa nila talagang magbabago. Plus yung players around June Mar, they have to step up,” Austria shared.

But it was not enough when the Aces got their bearings back and jumped on a 34-16 fourth quarter onslaught.

The Aces were still trailing 78-66 early in the fourth quarter, when the team finally performed with such tenacity. They forced turnovers with solid defense, ran in transition and finished with easy baskets, and executed well on offense to hack out a 100-91 win in the end.

But despite the loss, the Beermen are still driven by Fajardo’s absence. Signs point to Fajardo still missing about two games, but the defending champions’ mindset is to fight collectively.

San Miguel showed promise in Game 1, and who knows if the team can make the series interesting with the same eagerness.

“He is such a great guy on and off the court. All we can do is pray right now and hope it is nothing serious. It was tough,” Lassiter said. “I felt like it was taking a step back like I was injured. And this is where I am at. I knew I had to work hard and it wasn’t going to be easy. We are all going to step up. It is just going to be a team effort.”

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Mixed Martial Arts

Rene Catalan continues rampage with TKO win

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Rene Catalan continues to turn critics into believers

Filipino fighter Rene Catalan made his sixth appearance inside the ONE Championship cage at ONE: Kings of Courage, held at the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia, Saturday evening. He faced 21-year-old Chinese athlete Peng Xue Wen in the opening main card bout, and leaned on his elite wushu skills to stop the young star at the 4:22 mark of the second round.

The victory improves Catalan’s record to 4-2 (1 NC), extends his winning streak to four, and gives him the first TKO stoppage of his martial arts career, as he bids to climb the strawweight ladder in search of the ONE Strawweight World Championship.

“The Challenger” came out in the southpaw stance to open the bout, throwing big hooks and a head kick that narrowly missed as he established the center of the cage from the start of the contest.

The Filipino landed a host of powerful strikes, including a perfectly-placed uppercut and a melee of punishing leg kicks, but Peng’s conditioning and composure kept him in the match as he looked to stand and trade with the man 18 years his elder.

Catalan picked up where he left off when the bout resumed in the second round, this time operating out of the orthodox stance, landing more leg kicks and continuing to deny Peng any space to work.

Despite his dominance on the feet, there was a brief moment of concern for the Filipino on the mat when he jumped into the Chinese wrestler’s guard mid-way through the second round, and immediately found himself in a triangle choke. But the Filipino kept his composure and managed to work himself free.

Once the fighters returned to their feet, Catalan poured on the pressure in search of a finish, and he got it with just 38 seconds remaining in the stanza.

“The Challenger” scored big with a liver shot, then unloaded a fierce flurry of punches that forced Peng onto his back foot. Another shot forced Peng to the mat, where a salvo of ground and pound from Catalan eventually forced the TKO stoppage as referee Olivier Coste stepped in to halt the contest.

Photo, story, and video from ONE Championship

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Basketball

Gelo Alolino regrets Phoenix’s failure to close out Hotshots

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Photo by PBA Images

Gelo Alolino had his best game for the Phoenix Fuel Masters on Saturday night at the Cuneta Astrodome with 19 points, eclipsing his previous career-high of 16 markers which he made last May 21, 2017 in a loss to the Mahindra Floodbuster.

But his achievement won’t be too memorable, as it went for naught following a 91-97 defeat at the hands of Paul Lee and the Magnolia Hotshots, who have now collected their third straight victory.

For the second overall pick in the regular 2016 Rookie Draft, it was all because of their failure to sustain momentum up until the game’s final buzzer.

“Sayang, nandun na. We felt na sa amin na nung dulo kaso lang ganun talaga,” rued the 24-year-old sophomore after the match, where he shot an excellent 7-of-10 from the floor.

“Breaks of the game napunta sa kabila.”

Phoenix were in contention all throughout the match. In fact, they were even ahead, 89-84, with just three minutes left to play. But the Hotshots’ comeback skills were unleashed, leading to the narrow win.

“Siyempre kami lahat nasayangan. Maganda naman yung team effort talaga namin,” admitted the 6-foot floor general of their end-game collapse, which wasted their efforts in assists (21) and on defense, where they forced Magnolia to 21 turnovers.

“Kami as players talagang gusto namin bumawi coming from a loss last game sa Rain or Shine.

The Fuel Masters have now lost their second straight outing and have dropped to 2-3. And for Alolino, all they have to do is learn as much as they can from this loss, especially now that they are about to face the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel next.

“Yun nga. Medyo masakit para sa’min ‘to,” admitted the National University product.

“All we have to do is magviview ulit kami ng tape para makita kung saan kami mas pwede mag-improve as a team and bawat isa — including me.”

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Basketball

Glenn Khobuntin repays Ricky Dandan’s trust with end-game heroics

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FILE Photo from PBA Images

Glenn Khobuntin can finally say that he had himself a moment in the pro ranks

The National University alumnus proved his worth for the Kia Picanto, scoring his team’s final six points to steer the often-ridiculed club to their first win after a historic 16-game skid, at the expense of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, 98-94.

“I knew he would. I knew he would,” lauded Kia head coach Ricky Dandan of the takeover by the six-foot-four forward.

“It was a blessing he didn’t play for the first two quarters because he [came in] fresh at gigil na gigil.”

Khobuntin finished with 11 markers on 5-of-7 shooting — the best game he’s had so far, not because of the numbers he posted but with the way he made them. But the three-year pro does not want to take the spotlight all onto himself.

“Hindi lang din naman ako e, kami ding lahat e,” the 26-year-old shared. “Siguro kumbaga nagka-opportunity lang, napunta sa akin yung bola kasi yun yung nasa scheme ng play so ayun.

“Thankful lang ako na-hit ko yung mga na-design na plays.”

However, the third-year pro admitted that he had been frightened during the game’s final stretch, as Rain or Shine managed to impose a serious threat by coming back from a seven-point deficit, 94-96, with just less than 22 ticks left to play.

“Kinakabahan ako kasi two minutes pa rin yun e tapos Rain or Shine yung kalaban namin,” the native of Cagayan de Oro said. “Nakita ko nakakabalik sila. Thankful lang naman ako na yung game napunta sa amin, at least natapos yung losing streak namin.”

But more than the end of their months-long slump, what Khobuntin is grateful for is the trust given to him by Dandan, who fielded him as a starter in the second half after sitting out the entirety of the first 24 minutes.

“Nag-decide siya na ako yung i-start niya so thankful ako kasi nagtiwala siya sa akin.”

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ABL

Justin Brownlee, Alab lock down Knights for fifth win

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Paying a visit to Indonesia for the first time this season, Tanduay Alab Pilipinas needed time to figure the CLS Knights out before stifling the hosts in the final frame to take a 92-87 road win, Saturday evening at the GOR CLS Kertajaya in Indonesia.

This is Alab’s second straight win after losing to the Singapore Slingers last January 10.

With the win, the Philippine-based club team lifts its slate to 5-4 for solo fourth. CLS, on the other hand, dropped to 1-7 — just half a game ahead of the cellar-dwelling Formosa Dreamers.

Justin Brownlee displayed his all-around brilliance in the game, leading Alab with 36 points on 15-for-24 shooting to go along with eight rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.

But Alab’s bench could not sustain the effort of the starters, which meant the team was clinging to a two-point lead with 7:06 remaining.

Needing a spark, 40-year-old sniper Dondon Hontiveros provided for Alab, knocking down a triple that proved to be the starting point 14-2 Alab run. A jumper by Bobby Ray Parks, Jr. with 2:57 left capped the rally and gave Alab an 87-73 lead.

Hontiveros scored five of the eight Alab bench points. Fortunately for Alab, Renaldo Balkman and Bobby Ray Parks, Jr. were on point. The former tallying a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds, while Alab’s skipper had 14 points, four assists, two rebounds, two steals, and two blocks.

Coach Jimmy Alapag fielded his bench afterwards, but they let the quintet of Brian Williams, Mario Wuysang, Arif Hidayat, Decorey Jones, and Sandy Kurniawan slice the lead to as low as four points. Then free throws by Oping Sumalinog with eight ticks left put CLS away for good.

Williams paced CLS with 22 points and 14 rebounds while Kurniawan added 19 markers. Indonesian legend Wuysang had 17 points and six rebounds in the loss.

Alab ends its road trip on Sunday, January 28, when it takes on the Saigon Heat at the CIS Arena in Ho Chi Minh City.

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