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Cruz shines in crunch time, helps Rain or Shine snatch victory from Alaska

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The Rain or Shine Elasto Painters may be headed for an outright semifinal berth, after snatching the victory from the previously top-seeded Alaska Aces in the last two minutes of a 98-95 sizzler, Friday evening at the Araneta Coliseum.

Alaska entered the final two minutes with a six point lead, and led by three with a minute to go, but saw their cushion decimated following a series of clutch performances from Rain or Shine.

Rookie Jericho Cruz, who sank the two dagger baskets that carved the path for the Elasto Painters’ victory, took home Player of the Game honors. The 9th overall pick from Adamson University had 16 points and 5 rebounds off the bench.

Both squads traded baskets and leads to start the game. Rain or Shine held on to the advantage for the early half of the period, but Alaska managed to turn the tables down the stretch, getting much needed help from Cyrus Baguio’s eight first quarter points and completing a 6-2 spurt to take a 23-18 lead at the end of the quarter.

Capitalizing on another impressive show of defensive prowess, the Aces led by as many as seven points in the second quarter and held the usually trey-savvy Elasto Painters to a dismal 3-of-18 shooting from beyond the arc for the first half. The Elasto Painters however managed to keep pace despite struggling from the outside, and at the half, the Aces led by only three points, 45-42.

A six point explosion from sharpshooting big man Beau Belga gave the Elasto Painters their first lead since the first quarter, 53-50 around halfway through the third period. The Aces however immediately wrested control of the ballgame, leading by as many as eight points, 68-60, in the following minutes, getting a much needed boost from Dondon Hontiveros’ fiery shooting. At the end of the third, they led 73-67.

Proving to be the quicker draw in the ensuing shootout in the fourth quarter, the Aces stayed ahead of the chase, leading by as many as seven points. Though they were able to suppress most of Rain or Shine’s attempts at mounting a much needed rally, an 8-0 blitz led by Belga entering the final two minutes took Rain or Shine to within striking distance with a minute and a half left on the clock.

Two free-throws from veteran Erik Menk gave Alaska a three point lead, 93-90, entering the final minute of regulation. Belga came alive once more, grabbing the ball in a jump ball situation with less than 40 seconds left on the clock and finding Paul Lee, who sank a triple that forced a deadlock, 93-93, with 33.8 left to play.

Calvin Abueva managed to fire one back for Alaska, sinking a floater to put the Aces up 95-93, with 26 ticks left on the clock. Seconds later, Jeff Chan missed the second of two free-throw opportunities, but the ball was corralled by rookie Cruz, who sank the put-back to give Rain or Shine the edge, 96-95, with 18.5 seconds remaining.

Abueva got another chance at salvaging the Aces’ run, but the lay-up with 16 ticks left bounced off the rim. Players from both squads scrambled for the rebound, but it was Cruz who found the ball with less than ten seconds in the ballgame, escaping the fracas at their end of the court and racing down to the Aces’ end to sink a lay-up on the fastbreak and put Rain or Shine up 98-95, with 0.8 left on the clock. Jvee Casio had the chance to nail the game saver in the following play, but could not get into position for the hail mary.

Lee and Belga, the two other players who shone in the Elasto Painters’ last minute drive, had 19 and 16 points respectively. Abueva led the Aces with 18 points and 8 rebounds.

The Elasto Painters find themselves in the top two spot for the first time in the conference, improving to 8-2. The Aces, who spent most of the time at the top of the standings until their loss to the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel earlier this week, slide to 8-3, third in the standings. Another victory from the Elasto Painters will seal their place as one of the two teams headed to the postseason with an outright semifinals berth.

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