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How Fajardo's injury helped the Beermen

Yancy de Ocampo, Chris Ross and Gabby Espinas all stepped up in June Mar Fajardo's absence. 

On Game Seven of the PBA Philippine Cup, aside from the San Miguel Beermen making history as they first team to get back in the game after falling to a 0-3 hole and being on the verge of a historic comeback, (and conversely, Alaska on the precipice of infamy for surrendering a 3-0 lead), I think the injury  to June Mar Fajardo was a turning point for SMB.

It is one thing to lose the team’s (as well as the league’s) Most Valuable Player but it is altogether a different thing for a team to learn how to fly without him. You can say that it took SMB three matches to get used to playing without their franchise center and yet they didn’t easily roll over for Alaska.

Sans Fajardo, the Beermen lost the first three matches of the finals by an average of 6.3 points. Then SMB won the next two games by 9.5 points. And with Fajardo back for Game Six albeit in limited minutes, they crushed the Aces by 11, 100-89, to force a Game Seven.

Even without Fajardo, the Beermen were a tough nut to crack. Gabby Espinas and Yancy De Ocampo stepped into the breach and gave Alaska’s bigs no quarter. When Fajardo was back in Game Six, Alaska was in all sorts of trouble because there was no respite from SMB’s rejuvenated frontline.

Whether San Miguel wins the title or not (and yet momentum is clearly on their side right now), that injury to Fajardo could serve the team well in the long run because it clearly underscored the mental toughness of the Beermen and the depth of their frontcourt.

For too long Yancy De Ocampo has taken a backseat to his younger brother Ranidel of the Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters. Although Yancy contributed now and then to the vastly successful B-Meg/San Mig teams of the last few years, his performance now must breathe new life into his career at 35 years of age. He is playing quality minutes and is averaging 9.5 points (hitting double figures three times) and 6.6 rebounds in the Finals.

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Espinas was a good part of Alaska before being traded to SMB and in this finals, he showed his physical presence and how he too could wreak havoc on his former team that has its own bruising frontline in Calvin Abueva and Vic Manuel. Even better, Gabby is playing under control without his intensity level not abating one iota. Sure, he may be up against his former squad but he has made his presence felt.

Outside YDO and Espinas, there’s one other Beerman who has greatly elevated his game — Chris Ross. For sure Ross has performed well for a spell now. However, I will not forget during one game of the Philippine Cup finals of Season 40, SMB coach Leo Austria tapped Ross to come in at one point. To my surprise and watching from across their bench, a team official who isn’t even part of the staff held Ross back and instead motioned for Alex Cabagnot to enter the game. Was it an indictment on Ross’ game (aside from trying to usurp Austria)?

Ross had bounced around the league. With the Beermen, the San Antonio, Texas native was on his fourth PBA squad since being drafted number four overall by Coca Cola in 2009. He donned the colors of Sta. Lucia and Meralco before finding himself with Petron/SMB.

Late last season, Ross began to play better and well, right now, he has found a home with the Beermen. He is probably one of the top point guards in the league as he makes things happen with defense and a lot of smarts. And without a doubt, he will run that position for the Beermen for years to come.

Prior to SMB’s two titles last season, their previous championship was during the Governors’ Cup of 2011. Only two players remain in SMB’s roster from that year — Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot. The team has since been overhauled. Cabagnot who had become that team’s clutch player hitting many a game winner, was traded away before he was brought back last campaign.

Now, they’ve got so many studs (not to mention solid role players) in the clutch. Sometimes, one doesn’t really need to make trades to make a team better. It’s simply giving the ones in your roster the opportunity to show their worth. And they sure have. It will be easier for Austria to rotate his bigs and give Fajardo longer rest to keep him fresh for the long haul. Like I said, no quarter. And if you ask me, they’ve just put the league on notice that they’ll be competing for titles for quite a while.

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