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PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

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It’s safe to say that this has to be the PSL’s most successful conference yet with sold-out out-of-town events, fantastic competition, and, to top it off, a Finals series filled to the brim with story lines.

The Petron Blaze Spikers needed their first few matches to warm up but eventually blazed their route to the Finals. Still with a star-studded roster, Petron looked unstoppable in their semifinals match against their Day One tormentors, Cignal HD Spikers, and are just two wins away from their third-straight conference title dating back to last year’s Grand Prix.

Foton, on the other hand, added high-upside young talent to compliment their hard-hitting imports. Also starting the conference sluggishly, the Tornadoes picked up strength and ravaged through the second round of eliminations then barely edging out the fan-favorites Philips Gold Lady Slammers in the semifinals for their first Finals appearance in franchise history.

In the following we breakdown and analyze some of the most prominent talking points of this matchup. Can Petron nail a Grand Slam? Will Foton drag the Queens out of their throne? Most importantly…

Who is the better Santiago?

Inevitably, the Santiago sisters’ clash was going to take over the headlines with the younger Jaja starring for Foton and the now hyphenated Dindin leading Petron.

Ask any coach their preference between the sisters and they’re probably going to tell you that individual brilliance is hard to measure in volleyball – the epitome of team sports – especially when comparing two incredible players such as the Santiagos. Yes, they play the same position but have totally different skill sets.

Manabat

Aleone Denise is as quick as a brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. The former PSL MVP packs unrivaled power with her running attacks – streaking down the right side of the net, taking off like an ice skater going for an axel jump, then powering the ball off or past her blockers. The top pick of the first ever PSL Draft, the 6’1” Dindin has proven she can’t be simply defined as a volleyball player, with Petron hinging its dynamic offense on her versatile hitting. She has effectively played both wing attacking positions and has translated her speed and length to defending the back row decently.

PSL GP Foton vs. RC Cola - Stalzer, Santiago-0714

Alyja Daphne, meanwhile, staggers foes with her length. Having just grown to 6’5”, Jaja has evolved into the most devastating offensive player in the country off her quick attacking alone. Give Jaja a high enough set and watch her gangly frame slowly unfurl over the opposing blockers stretched arms. Like toddlers reaching for cookie a jar on top the counter, Jaja’s blockers just can’t reach her attack. At that point, the current NU Lady Bulldog can easily send the quick hurdling down the back row. She even worked on her much criticized blocking, putting up gaudy block kill figures in the Grand Prix.

Petron relied on Dindin to carry their offense past their trying start to the season, later adjusting and getting more of their attackers at the cost of Manabat’s numbers. Foton seemed to improve along with Jaja – as their chemistry got better, Jaja got used to their patterns and her heavy scoring load in the team’s rotation.

Both sisters’ performance, like any other player, depend mostly on the overall performance on the team. Being middle blockers primarily, they each need their teammates to give them their attacking opportunities off steady ball control. Right now, neither is better than the other and we as Filipino volleyball fans should be happy that we will have both towing our National Team for years to come.

For now, they clash in the PSL Finals. Ask either sister, and they’ll tell you they’ve gotten used to playing against each other – it’s not a big deal anymore. Ditto for which one of them is better. Both just care about helping their team win a title.

Explaining each team’s slow start

As mentioned earlier, both teams went through their respective adjustment periods to kick-off the season.

In their main, seven-lady rotation, Foton has used just one player from the previous conference (Angeli Araneta), filling the rest of the spots with their two imports, Lindsay Stalzer and Katie Messing, and four newly-signed young players in Jaja Santiago, Kayla Williams, Ivy Perez, and Bia General.

Foton struggled mightily to finish sets against fellow contenders, suffering from one too many setting and receiving blunders. Starting the second round with a 2-3 record, Foton’s starters came together after a prolonged holiday break. They peaked at just the right time to put away the heavily-favored and top-seeded Philips Gold Lady Slammers.

The Tornadoes carry a devastating offensive rotation with almost all their attackers capable of hitting over opposing blocks, adding dizzying combination plays to maximize their athleticism. Head coach, Vilet Ponce De Leon has arranged her starting six to always have a surefire attacking option no matter what the rotation, opting to have Jaja at the back with both imports in the front row at the same time.

PSL GP Foton vs. RC Cola - Santiago, Perez, Messing-0665

Setter Ivy Perez has rewarded her coaching staff’s patience with a rejuvenated tossing effort. With such an offensively geared team, Foton needed Ivy to orchestrate their attack and the southpaw has performed valiantly. Standing at 5’8”, Perez isn’t a liability in the front row which is rare for a setter. Her serve lefty float serves have also sparked crucial Foton rallies in multiple matches this season.

Lindsay Stalzer might be the highest leaper in the league while the Katie Messing is a towering figure in the wing spiker position. Fil-Jamaican Kayla Williams has been invaluable in holding down the second open hitter position while former isko Angeli Araneta is Utak and Puso personified.

Petron, on the other hand, was pushed like they had never been before. Bopped with a disappointing loss right from the first game, the Blaze Spikers dropped out of the spotlight while others took their title-favorite tag.

The taste of adversity musf have put off the Blaze Spikers. After all, they retained a star-studded lineup of locals that swept the All-Filipino Cup just a few months ago. Luckily, Petron had a surplus of leaders on the team to buck their Diesel-like start.

With fiery figures like Aby Maraño, Rachel Daquis, and Brazilian setter Erica Adachi leading the charge, it didn’t take long for Petron to reclaim their intimidation form.

PSL GP Petron vs. Meralco - Inck-1636

Brazilian import, Rupia Inck may have been the key to Petron’s surge. Fresh out of college, Rupia admitted that the professional game and lifestyle surprised her and the pressure of replacing last Grand Prix’s MVP went into her head. Once Rupia settled in at the tail end of the first round, she poured out 20-point performances with ease through her sheer power.

San Beda standout, Ces Molina has been lost in the constellation of stars on the team but her consistent scoring has kept the team afloat in dire times.

Petron head coach, George Pascua uses his expansive arsenal to the fullest, often toggling his attackers to different positions and making key substitutions mid-set to keep momentum on their side. Adachi, however, has been Pascua’s constant ace. The San Paulo native has no trouble keeping her attackers and receivers in line. There are setters and leaders that know which of their teammates they can push – Adachi is a true button masher.

Skills-wise, both teams are even on paper. Foton has just as much attacking threats as Petron while the blocking numbers depend mostly on which team can get a feel for the opponent’s patterns quicker. They both have strong servers from top to bottom and Lady Bulldogs anchor each team’s floor defense with Petron touting NU legend Jen Reyes and Foton rolling out the much-improved Bia General. So…

Is Petron’s experience the deciding factor?

Experience is such a vague concept yet, oddly enough, it’s easily quantifiable in sports.

Petron has won the PSL’s past two conferences. Aby Maraño is a decorated college athlete with three UAAP championships under her hairclips. Rachel Anne Daquis also has a UAAP title and has been in countless championship campaigns with the Army Lady Troopers in several leagues. Dindin Manabat has more Best Attacker and MVP awards than fingers. Ditto for Jen Reyes, the Best Libero of seemingly every league she joins. Almost all of their locals have played for the National Team at one point and the entire team participated in the Asian Volleyball Club Championships last August.

With all those accolades, we assume that the Blaze Spikers will just figure out a way to win, no matter how poorly they start or how deep Foton drags them into the edge of defeat. Petron’s coaching staff proudly wield their experience and Foton acknowledges their deficit in big game experience. Add that Foton lost both their season matches to Petron and it becomes clear why Foton is regarded as an underdog despite thei apparent strengths.

But it’s careless to say that the Tornadoes won’t make quality in-game decisions just because they’re relatively younger and haven’t been together for as long as Petron. Lindsey Stalzer isn’t new to organizational pressure in the PSL and her expansive international experience can rub-off on her teammates.

With all the talk of their experience, Petron has tons of pressure stacked on them. As this season has proven, no team is unbeatable.

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Miguel Luis Flores fell face first into sports writing in high sch9l and has never gotten up. He reluctantly stumbled into the volleyball beat when he started with Tiebreaker Times three years ago. Now, he has waded through everything volleyball - from its icky politics to the post-modern art that is Jia Morado's setting.

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Calvin Abueva rejuvenated with return of physical play: ‘Masarap maglaro’

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Photo by PBA Images

For Calvin Abueva, it feels great to play in the PBA nowadays.

The Beast, who has always been known as one of the league’s most physical players since entering in 2012, was all praises for the way the officiating has changed this 43rd season — by just letting all the players play.

“Mas gumanda yung tawagan ngayon, naging physical nga. Naging exciting para sa mga tao, mas marami na nanonood ngayon eh,” said Abueva moments after their 97-83 victory over the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, Sunday night.

As has been said many times, physicality had become something controlled over the last two years. Abueva knows it too well, having been a casualty, as he has paid a bevy of penalties during that time.

And now that it is a thing of the past, the 6-foot-2 bruiser feels much better, knowing that he can display his brand of basketball once more.

“Masarap maglaro, talagang pisikalan,” said the 29-year-old forward from Angeles, Pampanga. “Siyempre makikita naman natin kung sinasadya o hindi, basta katawan lang.

“Pisikal. Yun yung magandang laro di ba?”

Aside from the comeback of physicality, what makes Abueva beam even more is the way the Aces have been playing in the 2018 Philippine Cup. After a 0-2 start in the tourney, they have now booked their third straight win.

“Nung 2017 parang nilubog na namin yung losing streak namin doon. Ito 2018 na at panibagong destination na naman yung ina-ano namin,” said Abueva, who had nine points, nine rebounds, and five assists against Ginebra.

“Sustain muna namin ‘to… Sana magtuloy-tuloy ‘tong winning streak namin.”

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Alaska takes advantage of Greg Slaughter’s absence

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For the streaking Alaska Aces, their stunning 97-83 victory over the favored Barangay Ginebra San Miguel on Sunday night was partly made possible by the absence of one key player: seven-foot behemoth Greg Slaughter.

The 28-year-old center, who was averaging 20.67 points and 10.3 rebounds prior to Sunday, did not play against the Aces due to a hamstring injury. How he incurred the injury has yet to be determined.

“There’s a small person named Greg Slaughter who didn’t play; I think he has an impact on the game,” quipped coach Alex Compton after the match.

“[They missed] a guy who I think is gonna win an MVP soon in Greg Slaughter.

“Sometimes dito sa liga natin, you have to take advantage when opportunities come your way. You don’t want anybody to get hurt [though],” added Compton.

With Slaughter out of the way, the Aces’ big men feasted.

Vic Manuel top-billed with 18 points and five rebounds, and elder statesman Sonny Thoss turned back the clock with a 17-point, four-rebound outing.

“Malaking bonus na rin sa amin, kasi wala nga si Greg kaya nakuha namin yung panalo,” said Manuel.

“Yeah it definitely helped,” added the six-foot-seven Thoss, who shot 6-of-12 from the floor and made four of his freebies.

“He’s a big guy, he’s a big presence inside so it took one big guy off our shoulder.”

Slaughter was approached and asked by scribes regarding his injury, but he was not in the mood to comment. No one can blame him, though, since the Barangay have slipped to their second straight defeat after a 2-0 start.

“I’m always there in practice, going over our gameplans. But it’s better if you ask our PT,” he said.

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Alaska completes turnaround at Greg Slaughter-less Ginebra’s expense

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Photo by PBA Images

A strong second half surge was all the Alaska Aces needed to turn back the heavily-favored Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, 97-83, and book their third straight victory, Sunday night at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.

The Aces, who have yet to lose this 2018, have now improved to 3-2. Meanwhile, the Barangay absorbed their second straight loss and have dropped to 2-2.

“I was telling the guys na parang ang dami nating iniisip, hindi natin ginagawa yung ginagawa natin noong nakaraang dalawang linggo. Sabi ko relax lang tayo,” said coach Alex Compton, sharing what he told his wards that sparked the win.

Vic Manuel led the Milkmen with 18 points and five rebounds. Sonny Thoss turned back the clock as he made 17 markers on 6-of-12 shooting, while Chris Banchero supplied 14 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

The Aces were trailing by eight, 36-44 at the half, but it became a different ball game come the third chapter as they outscored the Gin Kings, 37 to 19, to erect a favorable 73-63 cushion heading into the game’s final 12 minutes.

From there, Alaska kept their foot on the gas to sustain their lead, which grew to as much as 18, 85-67, after their 6-0 spree — punctuated by Banchero’s lay-up plus a foul — with 6:14 remaining in the final frame.

Ginebra still tried to make one last push as they inched within 10, 75-85, but baskets by Thoss and Kevin Racal propelled Alaska to an 89-75 lead with 3:42 left to play — more than enough to knock out their counterparts.

“I was glad to come away with the win,” added Compton. “Sometimes, we have to take advantage of opportunities coming your way. You don’t want anybody to get hurt but when two number one picks on the other team aren’t playing… There.”

Jvee Casio had 13 markers for Alaska, while Calvin Abueva nearly had a double-double of nine points and nine boards along with five assists in 20 minutes.

Aljon Mariano had 15 points, nine rebounds, and three dimes for Ginebra, who — despite having Sol Mercado back in the fold after ankle issues — missed the services of Joe Devance and Greg Slaughter due to injuries.

Japeth Aguilar, Scottie Thompson, and Kevin Ferrer each scored 12 for the Barangay, with Thompson adding five assists. The trio combined for 15 of Ginebra’s 43 rebounds.

Alaska will aim to extend their streak versus the Blackwater Elite on Saturday, January 27 at 4:30 PM, while Ginebra will look to end their slump against the Phoenix Fuel Masters on Friday, January 26 at 7:00 PM. Both games are at SMART Araneta Coliseum.

The Scores:

Alaska 97 — Manuel 18, Thoss 17, Banchero 14, Casio 13, Abueva 9, Teng 9, Cruz 5, Enciso 3, Potts 3, Exciminiano 2, Magat 2, Racal 2, J. Pascual 0.

Ginebra 83 — Mariano 15, J. Aguilar 12, Ferrer 12, Thompson 12, Caguioa 8, Cruz 8, R. Aguilar 5, Tenorio 5, Mercado 2, Taha 2, Wilson 2, Jamito 0.

Quarterscores: 26-23, 36-44, 73-63, 97-83.

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Frustrated Jared Dillinger admits ‘he’s getting sick’ of Meralco’s bad PH Cup runs

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It’s no secret that the Meralco Bolts have struggled in the Philippine Cup for the last three years. During the last two seasons, the eight-year-old franchise’s win-loss tally is four wins and 18 losses.

And in the 2018 edition, the narrative has been the same, with little to no hope of it turning the other way around.

The Bolts bowed to the TNT Katropa, 99-81, Sunday night — their third straight defeat after winning over Blackwater Elite in their opener last December. If things continue as they are, it looks like another poor all-Filipino tilt run is looming.

“We’re 1-3 and there’s nothing to be happy about,” said Jared Dillinger, who had 14 points and five caroms in the match at Ynares Center in Antipolo. “It’s a long season though… We [shouldn’t] panic but it’s not fun right now.

“The Philippine Cup has been our Achilles heel and every damn Philippine Cup we get our ass kicked. I’m getting sick of it.”

In this game, Meralco missed the services of top forwards Ranidel De Ocampo and Cliff Hodge due to injuries. But for Dillinger, those issues shouldn’t be excuses.

“When you get two guys like Ranidel and Cliff out, as a team, that’s the opportunity for the guys below them to step up,” asserted Dillinger, who has been with the franchise since 2013.

“It doesn’t have to mean scoring, getting the assists or rebound, it’s just making the right play, being smart.”

Asked what went wrong in this particular loss versus their sister team, where they shot just 39.2 percent from the floor and had committed 17 turnovers, the 10-year veteran lamented the poor effort that the Bolts put up.

“TNT didn’t do anything much, given that they played well. But they didn’t have any secret schemes against us. They just passed the ball around, and they got open shots,” added the 10-year pro, as TNT made 23 assists and shot 18 triples.

“Our effort wasn’t there. We got to put up the intensity cause it sucks right now.”

Meralco have a chance to end their slump against the Kia Picanto this Wednesday. Dillinger sees it as a do-or-die affair, warning that it will be a grind-out affair knowing that the Picanto is coming off a skid-ending win over Rain or Shine.

Do-or-die ’cause that’s gonna be a playoff game. Thank God they beat Rain or Shine ’cause you don’t want to be that one team that gives the win to a 0-16 [team]. You don’t want to play teams like that,” stressed the all-around forward.

“Nothing to take away from Kia though. It’s gonna be tough.”

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