How San Miguel will win without their big man June Mar Fajardo has been the running theme for the Beermen in the Philippine Cup finals.
Games 1 to 3 tried to provide answers, as the Beermen were able to keep up with Alaska in those games. Those three meetings could have gone either way for both sides. In another universe, perhaps San Miguel could have been up 3-0 in the series.
But it is the Aces who have gone ahead 3-0. On the verge of the sweep, Alaska asked more questions of San Miguel. Do the Beermen really have what it takes to defeat the powerhouse Aces without one of their most important pieces?
People didn’t want half-hearted answers anymore. And neither did San Miguel.
So in Game 4, with San Miguel down 13 in the fourth and the match already slipping away, the Beermen countered with a furious response, showing the basketball world their tenacity and collective play as they battled back to answer questions, overcome adversity, and more importantly, stay alive in the series.
“Things happen in basketball. It’s just a game of runs and when a good team starts to run it is just hard to stop them. (We) just finished the game, we played hard and played well,” Chris Ross said.
“We’ve been in situations before where we were the underdogs or we are not supposed to win but we kept clawing. We just played hard, played with all your heart.”
San Miguel tightened up defensively, forcing stops and blanking shots. While the entire game had been a mostly offensive struggle, the Beermen started to hit shots. The Alaska lead was chopped in half. Then the Beermen kept pushing to snatch the advantage, until they were able to pull it off in overtime.
Arwind Santos, a heavily-scrutinized San Miguel figure, showed his leadership in a do-or-die game, rallying his troops together.
“Sobrang pagod na rin namin, lalo na ako. Naglaro ako ng 43 minutes. Pero walang ibang pupush sa amin kundi sarili namin. So kung kaya ko i-push sarili ko, bakit hindi ko ipasa sa iba. Kahit na nahihirapan na kami kunin yung panalo, ganun talaga,” Santos, who finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks, said.
“Syempre kapag bumigay ka, na hindi binibigay yung best mo, sayang. Pero meron pa kaming ibubuga eh. Kahit papano naka-stop kami, nabawi namin turnovers namin.”
Santos provided a bizarre yet accurate analogy for how the series looked like after the win.
“Ang Alaska, may tatlong puno (wins) na may napakatamis na bunga at pinoprotektahan nila yun, nasa bakod nila,” he shared.
“Ngayon, nakatikim kami ng isa. Gusto namin ulit sila nakawan. Tingnan natin. Hindi natin masabi at baka manakawakan namin sila dahil sa tulong-tulong kami.”
And as far as the Beermen’s former MVP is concerned, the team shall keep trying to steal momentum, wins, and perhaps even the series, no matter how insurmountable it looks.
“At least napatunayan na namin na kahit wala ang go-to guy namin, nanalo na kami. At isa pa, masaya ako dahil hindi nila masasabi na (sweep) kami,” Santos added.
“I am happy. Maski nabibigo kami, hindi mo pwede dalhin yan sa bahay. Dapat marunong ka humandle. May chance pa kami. Hindi kami bumigay (sa Game 4), at tingnan mo, nakuha namin ang panalo at nagpapasalamat ako.”
Ross had 11 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, and two steals in the win, and was a plus-20. When San Miguel finally asserted control in overtime with a 107-102 lead, he looked back at a fan from the Alaska side who had been talking to him the entire game.
Ross shook his head sideways, as if saying, no, not today.
“There was just a guy down there kind of talking to me the whole game so I just went back at him. This is fun, just interacting with the fans. To go against a classy organization like Alaska, it’s just fun,” the point guard shared.
Ross added he feels blessed to be in the finals, and his mindset has not changed. He treats every game as if it is the last, knowing the future is never certain in this business.
“Being in the finals is the blessing. You don’t know if it is your last time in the finals or the last game you’ll be playing in. You just got to soak it in, play your heart out. There are so many good teams and good players and you will never know when you are going to be back in the finals. I am definitely taking advantage of the situation even if we are down. We are going to take it game by game and possession by possession,” he said.
And so, the Beermen are still in it. They are down, 1-3, but not out. Not yet. Not when the defending champions play just like defending champions and show their character.